Who Invented The Internet? Inside The World Wide WebReid Kerr-Keller
The Internet: we post on it, email with it, conduct business through it. It’s such an integral part of our lives that we often take it for granted. It’s always around us, and it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time without it—if we were even alive then. But where did the Internet come from? Who invented it?
Some people would answer: “Tim Berners-Lee.” Berners-Lee is an English computer scientist, credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1990. The World Wide Web helps us navigate the Internet through various hyperlinks and networked pages (or, in other words, a “web”). But this is just a way to access the Internet, and it’s not the infrastructure or the technology of the Internet itself. In short, Berners-Lee did not invent the Internet.
So who did?
The answer is complicated—and it gets at the very nature of creation and invention.
A Web of Lies
Though Berners-Lee’s ideas are vital components of the Internet, the apparatus wasn’t built in a day. The internet’s inception was the culmination of years of work, some of it by inventors and scientists who are all but forgotten today.
In the 1960s, the US Department of Defense funded a program called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET. For years, scientists in the program tried to figure out the best ways to perform what they called “packet switching,” which at its core is how to send information through computers. This would become a crucial component of the Internet as we know it, and through this work, computer engineer J.C.R. Licklider began envisioning an “intergalactic network” of computers.
But that’s as big of a goal as it sounds, and it was incredibly difficult to pull off.
The initial results of ARPANET are totally laughable to us today. In 1969, the first message was sent from one computer to another. No, it wasn’t “U up?” it was “LOGIN.” Child’s play for our modern iphones—but the clunky, primal network crashed before the third letter was ever sent. Even so, the enormity of that victory is impossible to overstate: nowadays it would probably be like teleporting a person.
By the end of 1969, there were a whopping four computers on ARPANET—and another revolution was imminent.
The Backbone Of The Internet
In the 1970s, two contenders for the “Inventor of the Internet” title rose up from the ranks. Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn created Transmission Control Protocol or Internet Protocol (better known as TCP/IP). Basically, TCP/IP allowed all that sweet, sweet virtual information to be transmitted with ever-greater efficiency across bigger, better networks. Their invention has been called the “internet’s backbone,” and rightfully so—I mean, they even have the word “Internet” in there. Naturally, ARPANET adopted this protocol in 1983.
Ok, so Cerf and Kahn are the inventors of the Internet, right?
Well, to some, people, yes. Moreover, Cerf and Kahn are often forgotten in favor of bigger names like Berners-Lee, even though they deserve a lot of the credit, and their work helped to create the World Wide Web in the first place. But, as with Berners-Lee, they didn’t toil away in a vacuum. They were working with government grants, participated in teams of equally capable and brilliant scientists, and had the benefit of other ideas floating around them.
Plus, there’s one more untold story.
Plot twist: while the US government was busy trying to crack the internet, Xerox already had a big piece of the puzzle figured out—and almost by total accident.
For years, Xerox had used networked photocopiers and machines to perform their business, and the company is now widely recognized as the inventor of the Ethernet, or a kind of localized, familial computer network.
But get this: they didn’t know it.
Xerox did what they needed with their network—and only what they needed—without ever really developing it to its full potential. When famed Apple founder Steve Jobs recalled visiting Xerox, he remarked, “They just had no idea what they had.” Well, he’d probably know, wouldn’t he?
A GIF Is Born
The Internet is a story of a technological revolution built in fits and starts, with disparate pieces slowly coming together. At a certain stage, sometime around Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, the Internet hit a massive tipping point, and everything sped up to the clip of cyberspace.
In 1992, the University of Illinois developed Netscape (then called Mosaic), a newfangled “browser” to better help people access and navigate these computer networks. Then more and more innovations came: chatrooms and messengers, online stores, now-familiar social media sites like Facebook, and then Twitter and Instagram. Slowly, and then very quickly, we had the Internet.
The web has come a long way, and its roots are deeper than most of us think—deeper even than we’ve gone into here. After all, Nikola Tesla himself imagined a “world wireless system” all the way back in the 1900s, when modern computers were just a glimmer in the eyes of some brilliant minds.
We Invented The Internet
As with most everything else, then, the invention of the Internet was not the work of one individual and heroic savant, or even just a series of heroic savants. The web as we know it developed out of a combination of government initiatives, personal innovations, and more than a little dumb luck. Yes, it involved Tim Berners-Lee, but also Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, J.C.R. Licklider, Xerox, and countless other people, places, and things.
If, as Thomas Edison once said, genius is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration, nothing is more genius than the internet.
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