Let's start by clearing up some mis-conceptions about the Internet. The Internet is not the Web. The Internet is not a cloud. And the Internet is not magic.

It may seem like something automatic that we take for granted, but there is a whole process that happens behind the scenes that makes it run.

So...The Internet. What is it?

The Internet is actually a wire. Well, many wires that connect computers all around the world.

The Internet is also infrastructure. It's a global network of interconnected computers that communicate through a standardised way with set protocols.

Really, it's a network of networks. It's a fully distributed system of computing devices and it ensures end to end connectivity through every part of the network. The aim is for every device to be able to communicate with any other device.

Visualisation of a possible routing path on the Internet. Image from Wikimedia Foundation.

The Internet is something we all use everyday, and many of us can't imagine our lives without it. The internet and all the technological advances it offers has changed our society. It has changed our jobs, the way we consume news and share information, and the way we communicate with one another.

It has also created so many opportunities and has helped helped humanity progress and has shaped our human experience.  

There is nothing else like it – it's one of the greatest inventions of all time. But do we ever stop to think why it was created in the first place, how it all happened, or by whom it was created? How the internet has become what it is today?

This article is more of a journey back in time. We'll learn about the origins of the Internet and how far it has come throughout the years, as this can be beneficial in our coding journeys.

Learning about the history of how the Internet was created has made me realise that everything comes down to problem solving. And that is what coding is all about. Having a problem, trying to find a solution to it, and improving upon it once that solution is found.

The Internet, a technology so expansive and ever-changing, wasn't the work of just one person or institution. Many people contributed to its growth by developing new features.

So it has developed over time. It was at least 40 years in the making and kept (well, still keeps) on evolving.

And it wasn't created just for the sake of creating something. The Internet we know and use today was a result of an experiment, ARPANET, the precursor network to the internet.

And it all started  because of a problem.

Scared of Sputnik

It was in the midst of the Cold War, October 4 1957, that the Soviets launched the first man made satellite into space called Sputnik.

As it was the world's first ever artificial object to float into space, this was alarming for Americans.

The Soviets were not only ahead in science and technology but they were a threat. Americans feared that the Soviets would spy on their enemies, win the Cold War, and that nuclear attacks on American soil were possible.

Image from Wikimedia Foundation

So Americans started to think more seriously about science and technology. After the Sputnik wake up call, the space race began. It was not long after that in 1958 the US Administration funded various agencies, one of them being ARPA.

ARPA stands for Advanced Research Project Agency. It was a Defence Department research project in Computer Science, a way for scientists and researchers to share information, findings, knowledge, and communicate. It also allowed and helped the field of Computer Science to develop and evolve.

It was there that the vision of J.C.R. Licklider, one of the directors of ARPA, would start to form in the years to come.

Without ARPA the Internet would not exist. It was because of this institution that the very first version of the Internet was created – ARPANET.

Creating a Global Network of Computers

Although Licklider left ARPA a few years before ARPANET was created, his ideas and his vision laid the foundation and building blocks to create the Internet. The fact that it has become what we know today we may take for granted.

Computers at the time were not as we know them now. They were massive and extremely expensive. They were seen as number-crunching machines and mostly as calculators, and they could only perform a limited number of tasks.

So in the era of mainframe computers, each one could only run a specific task. For an experiment to take place that required multiple tasks, it would require more than one computer. But that meant buying more expensive hardware.

The solution to that?

Connecting multiple computers to the same network and getting those different systems to speak the same language in order to communicate with one another.

The idea of multiple computers connected to a network was not new. Such infrastructure existed in the 1950's and was called WANs (Wide Area Networks).

However, WANs had many technological limitations and were constrained both to small areas and in what they could do. Each machine spoke it's own language which made it impossible for it to communicate with other machines.

So this idea of a 'global network' that Licklider proposed and then popularised in the early 1960's was revolutionary. It tied in with the greater vision he had, that of the perfect symbiosis between computers and humans.

He was certain that in the future computers would improve the quality of life and get rid of repetitive tasks, leaving room and time for humans to think creatively, more in-depth, and let their imagination flow.

That could only come to fruition if different systems broke the language barrier and integrated into a wider network. This idea of "Networking" is what makes the Internet we use today. It's essentially the need for common standards for different systems to communicate.

Building a Distributed Packet Switched Network

Up until this point (the end of the 1960's), when you wanted to run tasks on computers, data was sent via the telephone line using a method called "Circuit switching".

This method worked just fine for phone calls but was was very inefficient for computers and the Internet.

Using this method you could only send data as a full packet, that is data sent over the network, and only to one computer at a time. It was common for information to get lost and to have to re-start the whole procedure from the beginning. It was time consuming, ineffective, and costly.

And then in the Cold War era, it was also dangerous. An attack on the telephone system would destroy the whole communication system.

The answer to that problem was packet switching.

It was a simple and efficient method of transferring data. Instead of sending data as one big stream, it cuts it up into pieces.

Then it breaks down the packets of information into blocks and forwards them as fast as possible and in as many possible directions, each taking its own different routes in the network, until they reach their destination.

Once there, they are re-assembled. That's made possible because each packet has information about the sender, the destination, and a number. This then allows the receiver to put them back together in their original form.

This method was researched by different scientists, but the ideas of Paul Baran on distributed networks were later adopted by ARPANET.

Baran was trying to figure out a communication system that could survive a nuclear attack. Essentially he wanted to discover a communication system that could handle failure.

He came to the conclusion that networks can be built around two types of structures: centralised and distributed.

From those structures there came three types of networks: centralised, decentralised, and distributed. Out of those three, it was only the last one that was fit to survive an attack.

Image from RAND CORPORATION

If a part of that kind of network was destroyed, the rest of it would still function and the task would simply be moved to another part.

At the time, they didn't have rapid expansion of the network in mind – we didn't need it. And  it was only in the years to come that this expansion started to take shape. Baran's ideas were ahead of his time, however, they laid the foundation for how the Internet works now.

The experimental packet switched network was a success. It led to the early creation of the ARPANET architecture which adopted this method.

How ARPANET Was Built

What started off as a response to a Cold War threat was turning into something different. The first prototype of the Internet slowly began to take shape and the first computer network was built, ARPANET.

The goal now was resource sharing, whether that was data, findings, or applications. It would allow people, no matter where they were, to harness the power of expensive computing that was far away, as if they were right in front of them.  

Up until this point scientists couldn't use resources available on computers that were in another location. Each mainframe computer spoke its own language so there was lack of communication and incompatibility between the systems.

In order for computers to be effective, though, they needed to speak the same language and be linked together into a network.

So the solution to that was to build a network that established communication links between multiple resource-sharing mainframe supercomputers that were miles apart.

The building of an experimental nationwide packet switched network that linked centers run by agencies and universities began.

On October 29 1969 different computers made their first connection and spoke, a 'node to node' communication from one computer to another. It was an experiment that was about to revolutionize communication.

The first ever message was delivered from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to SRI (the Stanford Research Institute).

It read simply "LO".

What was meant to be "LOGIN" was not feasible at first, as the system crashed and had to be rebooted. But it worked! The first step had been made and the language barrier had been broken.

By the end of 1969 a connection had been established between four nodes on the whole network which included UCLA, SRI, UCSB (University of California Santa Barbara) and the University of Utah.

But the network grew steadily throughout the years and more and more universities joined.

By 1973 there were even nodes connecting to England and Norway. ARPANET managed to connect these supercomputing centers run by universities together into its network.

One of the greatest achievements of that time was that a new culture was emerging. A culture that revolved around solving problems via sharing and finding the best possible solution collectively via networking.

During that time scientists and researchers were questioning every aspect of the network – technical aspects as well as the moral side of things, too.

The environments where these discussions were taking place were welcoming for all and free of hierarchies. Everyone was free to express their opinion and collaborate to solve the big issues that arose.

We see that kind of culture carrying over to the Internet of today. Through forums, social media, and the like, people ask questions to get answers or come together to deal with problems, whatever they may be, that affect the human condition and experience.

As time passed, more independent packet switched networks emerged that were not related to ARPANET (which existed on an international level and started to multiply by the 1970's) . That was a new challenge.

These different networks had their own dialects, and their own standards for how data was transferred. It was impossible for them to integrate into this larger network, the Internet we know today.

Getting these different networks to speak to one another – or Internetworking, a term scientists used for this process – proved to be a challenge.

A Need for Common Standards

Now our devices are designed so that they can connect to the wider global network automatically. But back then this process was a complex task.

This worldwide infrastructure, the network of networks that we call the Internet, is based on certain agreed upon protocols. Those are based on how networks communicate and exchange data.

From the early days at ARPANET, it still lacked a common language for computers outside its own network to be able to communicate with computers on its own network. Even though it was a secure and reliable packet-switched network.

How could these early networks communicate with one another? We needed the network to expand even more for the vision of an 'global network' to become a reality.

To build an open network of networks, a general protocol was needed. That is, a set of rules.

Those rules had to be strict enough for secure data transfer but also loose enough to accommodate all the ways that data was transferred.

TCP/IP Saves the Day

Vint Cerf and Bob Khan began working on the design of what we now call the Internet. In 1978 the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol were created, otherwise known as TCP/IP.

The rules for the Interconnection were:

  • The independent networks were not required to change
  • There was an effort to achieve communication
  • Internal networks would exist in addition with gateways that would connect these networks. Their job would be to translate between the networks. There would be one universal, agreed upon protocol for that.
  • There would be no central control, no one person or organization in charge.

As Cerf explained:

The job of TCP is merely to take a stream of messages produced by one HOST and reproduce the stream at a foreign receiving HOST without change.

The Internet Protocol (IP) makes locating information possible when looking among the plethora of machines available.

So how does data travel?

So how does a packet go from one destination to another? Say from the sending destination to the receiving one? What role does TCP/IP play in this and how does it make the journey possible?

When a user sends or receives information, the first step is for TCP on the sender's machine to break that data into packets and distribute them. Those packets travel from router to router over the Internet.

During this time the IP protocol is in charge of the addressing and forwarding of those packets. At the end, TCP reassembles the packets to their original state.

What Happened Next with the Internet?

Throughout the '80s this protocol was tested thoroughly and adopted by many networks. The Internet just continued to grow and scale at a rapid speed.

The interconnected global network of networks was finally starting to happen. It was still mainly used widely by researchers, scientists, and programmers to exchange messages and information. The general public was quite unaware of it.

But that was about to change in the late '80s when the Internet morphed again.

This was thanks to Tim Berners Lee who introduced the Web – how we know and use the Internet today.

The internet went from just sending messages from one computer to another to creating an accessible and intuitive way for people to browse what was at first a collection of interlinked websites. The Web was built on top of the Internet. The Internet is its backbone.

I hope this article gave some context and insight into the origins of this galaxy of information we use today. And I hope you enjoyed learning about how it actually all started and the path it took to becoming the Internet we know and use today.