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US Internet Invention

Early Concepts and Theories

The early 20th century was marked by intellectual ferment as visionaries began conceptualizing the idea of a worldwide network. Paul Otlet, in the 1930s, imagined a "world city" filled with mechanized libraries that allowed users to access a global information network through electric telescopes that delivered books, pictures, audio recordings, and films.

J.C.R. Licklider was pivotal in setting the stage for what would evolve into the internet. By the early 1960s, Licklider at MIT elaborated on ideas analogous to the Internet in his series of memos discussing an "Intergalactic Network." His revolutionary notion was that computers could enable communication among users and, possibly, among computers themselves worldwide. He envisioned a user-friendly, universally accessible, network-based way for people to access programs and data at any site from anywhere.1

Vannevar Bush had already, in the 1940s, propounded his vision of the "memex," a device capable of hyperlinking vast amounts of data—a clear conceptual predecessor to hyperlinks on the World Wide Web. Bush's idea presaged features integral to digital computing and online databases, stressing the importance of data linkages and retrieval.2

These early concepts laid fertile ground for more tangible progress. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, concerted efforts culminated materially during Licklider's tenure as director at ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency). ARPA proved instrumental by funding researchers who would iterate early computer networking concepts into testable forms. Although rudimentary by today's standards, the advancements marked critical waypoints in the painstaking evolution from theory to practice.

Without the theoretical underpinnings framed by the profound meditations of Otlet, Bush, and Licklider, the trajectory toward a globally interconnected information system would have been considerably less direct. Each theorist contributed layers to our comprehension of potential information networks, inscribing paths that led directly to the eventual construction of ARPANET in 1969. This groundbreaking project instantiated concepts like packet switching and served as an operational precursor to our modern Internet.

An illustration depicting Paul Otlet's concept of a world city, with futuristic buildings housing mechanized libraries and people accessing information through electric telescopes.

ARPANET Development

The genesis of ARPANET can be vividly traced back to 1969. The implementation of packet-switching theory was one of the extraordinary advancements that set this endeavor apart.

At the heart of ARPANET's development was Leonard Kleinrock, who had already detailed the foundational concept of packet switching in his groundbreaking work at MIT. Packet switching, where data is broken into smaller, easily routed "packets," was revolutionary, particularly because it contrasted with the then-prevailing circuit switching methods. Kleinrock's research illustrated how packet switching was feasible and highly efficient, allowing for flexible data transmission that could endure partial network failures.3

The inaugural transmission of ARPANET tied back directly to Kleinrock's laboratory at UCLA, which housed one of the first two nodes on the fledgling network. The other was located at Stanford Research Institute. The simple message attempted on October 29, 1969, was "LOGIN." Yet, in a moment brimming with symbolic hiccups that often accompany profound advancements, the system crashed, and only "LO" was successfully sent. Despite this, the attempt was a resounding step toward realizing what many had theorized for years.

Engineers and scientists such as Robert Taylor, who directed ARPANET's funding through ARPA, and project manager Lawrence Roberts, who architected its plan, were pivotal in moving the project from abstract blueprints into reality. Their leadership and vision gathered dedication from multiple groundbreaking teams across various institutions.

As ARPANET first stutter-stepped into existence, it did so on the foundation laid by concepts like packet switching, and crucial was the Interface Message Processor (IMP—essentially early routers) developed by Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN) Technologies. These IMPs managed data traffic between the nodes, which were typified by large computers such as the SDS Sigma 7 at UCLA.

  • From just two nodes at inception in 1969, ARPANET expanded rapidly;
  • By the mid-1970s, the network included more than fifty universities, research centers, and government institutions.

This growth underscored a flourishing interest and concrete faith in packet-switching formats. The potential of a computer network to facilitate research collaborations and digital communications was beginning to be realized globally.

Incrementally, ARPANET delivered on its promises and demonstrated the practical applications of theoretical frameworks provided by its intellectual ancestors. As its reliability and capability improved, participation in the network exponentially increased. Both influenced by and inspiring commercial network developments, the prototypical system gradually transmuted into what would later emerge as the foundational structure for the global Internet.

ARPANET's early messages served as harbingers of a new era in both communication technology and how information would be handled, managed, and distributed across the entire world.

TCP/IP Integration and Expansion

As ARPANET continued to advance, the necessity for a more uniform and effective method of inter-network operation became paramount. This need ushered in a pivotal innovation spearheaded by Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn who introduced the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), commonly known as the TCP/IP protocol suite. This was a cardinal shift that revolutionized ARPANET and set the standard for future networking.4

Developed in the early 1970s and formalized in a seminal 1974 paper, TCP/IP emerged from Cerf and Kahn's work with ARPANET's packet-switched network design. The duo understood that for networks to interact seamlessly, they required a unified communications protocol that could effectively route packets in a decentralized and automated manner across multiple, disparate networks.

TCP/IP proved to be an ingenious solution:

  • TCP controls the assembly of a message or file into smaller packets before they are sent over the internet and reassembled in the correct sequence at the destination address.
  • IP handles the address part of each packet so that it gets to the right destination. Each gateway computer on the network checks this address to determine where to forward the packet.

The integration of TCP/IP was crucial for the development of the modern Internet. It facilitated a scalable, end-to-end network communication system that was not bound by the type of network or the transmitting data forms. This universality allowed different types of computers on various networks to "talk" to each other, significantly enhancing ARPANET's utility.

In 1983, ARPANET adopted TCP/IP, marking the protocol suite's official ascendancy—it was this development that justified the renaming of ARPANET to "the internet," signifying its transition from a singular project to a comprehensively available utility. The switch to TCP/IP was perhaps one of the most significant upgrades as it paved the way for a systematic buildup of the network of networks.

Throughout the 1980s, facilitated by the foundation laid by TCP/IP, the Internet witnessed an unprecedented expansion in network infrastructure. This era saw significant investments and developments, both from governmental and commercial entities. Networks like NSFNET and others across Europe and Asia contributed to a global interconnectivity that dramatically escalated in reach and capacity. Data flowed more freely and efficiently across continents, transcending earlier barriers of communication.

These augmented infrastructure investments were bolstered by the continued refinement and adoption of additional protocols that worked within the framework established by TCP/IP. For instance, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) for email, and the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) for large data transfers, each increased the practical utility of the internet.

TCP/IP functioned as a technical innovative milestone and a democratic catalyst that resulted in a shared global resource connecting millions of nodes, used by exponentially greater numbers of people around the world. The effects of integrating TCP/IP into ARPANET's architecture rejuvenated and expanded global communication's reach, birthing a multitude of other innovations and fundamentally altering interaction and information exchange globally.

Commercialization and Public Access

The late 1980s and early 1990s marked a significant epoch in the narrative of the internet, characterized by the shift toward commercialization and broader public access. One pivotal infrastructure in this transformation was the National Science Foundation's NSFNET. Initiated in 1986, NSFNET aimed to connect researchers across different geographical locales, supporting academic and scientific collaboration. Yet its role transcended its initial purpose to effectively pave the way for the internet to transition from a primarily research-oriented network to one with a much wider, public utility.

Stimulated by this push for expansion, and leveraging the increasingly universal TCP/IP protocols, the infrastructure broadened to include more universities and governmental bodies. Soon it burgeoned beyond these academic and bureaucratic bulwarks, recognizing the potential of commercial and everyday applications. As NSFNET's reach grew, so too did the appetite for a broader network that could handle both the exploding interest and burgeoning traffic emanating from a diverse array of sources.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) began to spring up in the late 1980s to meet the increasing demands for internet access from businesses and later, from private homes. These entities bought bulk access from owners of backbone networks, such as NSFNET, and sold it in smaller increments to the public, thus democratizing access to the burgeoning web of connections.

Perhaps no other development during this period had a more pronounced effect on the widespread adoption of the internet than the introduction of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990.5 Although the internet itself had been in technical operation since the late 1960s, it was Berners-Lee's brainchild that transformed it into a multimedia and hyperlinked universe. This environment was far more approachable and navigable for the average user than its predominantly text-based and command-line driven predecessors had been.

Berners-Lee envisioned a globally interconnected web of information that was both accessible and practical for general use. To realize this, he developed:

  1. HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the building block for web pages;
  2. HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which allowed for the retrieval of linked resources across the web;
  3. Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), which provided addresses for individual pieces of content.

Together, these formed the foundation of today's internet experience—simple and intuitive access, linked multimedia content, and connectivity that transcended physical and digital barriers.

By the time the NSF decided to decommission the NSFNET in 1995, largely due to the emergence of commercial internet providers that could now shoulder the burden of network traffic, the landscape had changed irrevocably. The internet had evolved from a tool reserved for a niche group of scientists and academics into a fundamental utility impacting the lives of millions across the globe.

The amalgamation of strategic federal initiatives with entrepreneurial spirit during this period catalyzed the technical advancement of networks and normalized the internet's presence in both commercial and domestic spheres. These developments promised—and indeed delivered—a future where digital connectivity would form the backbone of modern society's communication infrastructure, altering how people interacted with information, commerce, and each other on an unprecedented scale. Whether intended or serendipitous, these changes scripted the dawn of a new era, weaving the digital thread that would come to connect the detailed tapestry of contemporary global culture and economy.

An illustration depicting early internet service providers as building blocks, with each block representing a different ISP and connecting to form a larger network, against a background with binary code and circuit board patterns.
  1. Licklider JCR. Man-computer symbiosis. IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics. 1960;HFE-1:4-11.
  2. Bush V. As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly. 1945;176(1):101-108.
  3. Kleinrock L. Information flow in large communication nets. RLE Quarterly Progress Report. 1961.
  4. Cerf VG, Kahn RE. A protocol for packet network intercommunication. IEEE Transactions on Communications. 1974;22(5):637-648.
  5. Berners-Lee T. Information management: A proposal. World Wide Web Consortium. 1989.
William Montgomery
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