Evolution of the Internet

We often talk about the Internet as a new technology, but 1996 was the 40th anniversary of its "founding."

After Russia launched Sputnik in 1956, the U.S. established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which later began work to help scientists communicate. In 1959 UCLA established the first site on what would later become the Internet.

The research was done to determine the most reliable way to transmit information from one place to another. A message was broken into packets* which flowed over dedicated lines. The lines intersected at nodes*, where the packets could transfer to new lines, much as trains do at switching yards. Messages were broken up and put into electronic envelops, coded so the machine at the destination could put them back together in the correct order.

Such communication came from the researchers' agreement that each computer in the chain would use common procedures, or protocols, so the messages could be understood by every machine in the network.

The early networks linked thousands of users, but the system was dominated by scientists and government researchers. The most popular service today, electronic mail, developed slowly, although Internet lore claims that Queen Elizabeth II sent out an e-mail message in the early 1970s.

Since that time, millions of people from all walks of life and all ages, have discovered the Internet. Many events have contributed to this, including:

  • The cost of personal computers dropped, while the machines and the technology needed to connect computers together became much more powerful and much faster.
  • Commercial access providers* brought e-mail into the offices and homes of millions.
  • Online services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online introduced computer users to the concept of communicating and receiving electronic information through a modem over telephone lines.
  • Content has expanded from scientific papers to information of interest to a much wider audience. We've moved from transmitting scientific papers to writing notes, researching life in Plymouth in 1627, watching movie clips and checking out what's happenin' at NASA.

But users were frustrated by the need to learn complex computer commands, as well as the difficulty in finding what they needed. Until four years ago, the Internet looked like the world's biggest library with the books piled on the floor and no card catalog.

While the technology made it possible to link every computer in the world, from massive government machines to the cheapest personal version, an easy-to-use navigational tool was needed to help people sort through the huge amount of information suddenly available. Fortunately, this need was met by the development of the World Wide Web.