Who Invented the Internet?
On March 9, 1999, U.S. Vice President Al Gore, made a statement during a campaign interview that, unbeknownst to him, would soon become the subject of somewhat humorous controversy. “I took initiative in creating the internet.” What followed were a bunch of newspaper articles,
comic strips, and “memes” mocking the vice president, starting a new wave of political humor for his candidacy in the 2000 Presidential Election: Ridiculous. Did Al Gore really just claim that he created the internet? Well, not exactly. What he had meant to say was that he was an integral part of putting forward legislation that made the internet so easily accessible and as powerful as it was in the 1990s. But because of his poor choice of words, naturally they were stripped of their context and even completely changed altogether. That answer wouldn’t be as interesting as telling everybody that Gore was bold enough to claim that he sat down, designed, and built the internet as a technology, all by himself.
Gore’s lack of forethought with his remarks lead to an influx of embellishment and misinformation. But what started off as mass media shenanigans ended up becoming a valid burning question: If Al Gore can’t take credit for creating the internet, then who can? Who Invented the Internet? Well, that’s a ridiculous question. I mean, obviously it’s Tim Burners Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web in 1989 and finally made it public in 1991. Clearly, he is the Founding Father of what we recognize today as the internet…right? Actually, no. There are so many things that we are taught in school as being “absolute truths”: Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, Ben Franklin discovered electricity, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. But when it comes to a relatively recent technology like the internet, the answer
is unclear. Who is our “guy” for the internet? Or “gal” even? As there are many women out there who could just as easily take the credit. Deciding who is responsible for the internet has become a discussion of great debate. Depending
on who you ask, the answer will be different but the reasons still just as valid. Perhaps the story behind who’s responsible is just as complicated as the invention itself, filled with so many moving parts that are only visible when seeing the big picture, and that includes a lot of US government intervention. If that’s the case, was Mr. Gore’s comment really that unreasonable? Could he unironically take credit for inventing the internet? The reason why a question like this is so open-ended is because the internet itself is an open-ended technology. It wasn’t something that just appeared overnight. It was gradual
and took literal generations to master. The internet is so complicated, that even we don’t fully understand it ourselves. We often use the terms “internet” and “world wide web” interchangeably, but they are very different things. In its simplest form, the
“internet” is just a bunch of computers talking to each other, and the “World Wide Web” is the software we use to understand what those computers are saying. Now this may seem like some arbitrary distinction to make, I mean when someone says they “bought something on the internet,” we all know what they mean. But knowing the difference is crucial to understanding the internet and its history.
So where did it all begin? Well, you could argue that there actually is a fixed date for when the internet was born: October 4, 1957 – when “Leave it to Beaver” premiered on television. Okay, THAT wasn’t what caused it, but another important thing happened that day too: Sputnik was launched into space by Russia, becoming the first manmade orbital satellite. In case it wasn’t super obvious already, the US and the Soviet Union were kind of really trying to one-up each other after World War II, in who was the better superpower. This lead to the Cold War: not a physical war with direct military engagement, you can thank Kennedy for that, but a period of great political tension where the two countries basically looked daggers at each other. A byproduct of the Cold War was the Space Race,
and when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the US wasn’t exactly stoked about it. In order to keep their eyes on the Soviets at all times and make sure that the US always had the better technology, President Eisenhower created DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For a while, things went just about how they expected, but as technology got more sophisticated, meeting DARPA’s objectives got more difficult. In order to really maintain good surveillance
of the Soviets and continue making state of the art technology, US research centers had to constantly be in contact with one another, and someone being on the phone 24/7 wasn’t good enough. The only way to do that was by creating a “network.” Keep in mind that back in the 1960s you didn’t have these user-friendly desktop computers. You had these confusing, heavy computers that were the size of entire living rooms: these were called “mainframes.” By allowing the mainframes of these research centers to be constantly connected to one another, information could be transmitted extremely fast and DARPA could get a lot more work done. This was made possible by the theories of J. C. R. Licklider, who
basically said “hey, what if we took landlines and instead of having phones connected to them, it was computers?” Thanks to Licklider and Bob Taylor, DARPA leased phone lines to bring this idea to life and create the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, also known as “ARPANET.” Now the creation of ARPANET was, in a lot of ways, history repeating itself. If you study a lot of American history, you may notice that the very first US presidential election is the only election to span over two calendar years. That’s because it took over a month to count all the votes. This would be the norm, up until 1848, where all
the votes were counted in just one day. What is going on here? Well, what if I told you that the reason for this is the same reason we were able to make ARPANET: telecommunication. In 1844, you had the invention of the telegraph, a device that connected, through a copper wire, to another device on the other side. The devices would use this wire to send and receive electrical pulses. Now at face value, these are just arbitrary pulses of electricity,
but what if you could turn it into a whole system of communicating? What if 4 short pulses represented the letter H, and one long pulse was the letter T, and so on. Samuel Morse would create this whole system known as Morse Code, and by laying copper wires down across the country, people could instantly communicate from long distances for the very first time. Instead of having to mail these ballots and gather them all together to be counted manually, they could just be transmitted via wire. What used to take over a month, now only took a couple of minutes. Mainframes connected to a phone behave very similarly, but instead
of these electrical pulses being interpreted as Morse Code, they are interpreted as something called a “protocol.” Thanks to the complex capabilities of computers, instead of just sending letters, we can also send things like data, lines of code that can tell another computer what to do. But computer data is complicated. How are we able to send it in the same way we do with something simple like more code? Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is one of my all-time favorite albums, and one of the many things I admire about it is the album cover, which shows the basic scientific principles of a prism. You shine a light on a prism, it will create multiple colors of light on the other side. Transmitting computer data behaves the same way, but in reverse, because of something called “modulation.” To put it very simply, modulation takes an input consisting of multiple signals, and converts it into one signal that travels through the line, which is then demodulated back into its original form on the other side. There
are machines that specialize in doing this, and they are called modems. I am omitting a lot of other details there because frankly it is, beyond my pay grade, but it is essentially the reason we can send complex data like that over the line. The only limitations at that point are just the complexities of the computers, and as they get more powerful, you can eventually start sending things like photographs, but we’re moving too far ahead right now. The very first ARPANET connection occurred on October 30, 1969 between Charlie Kline of UCLA and Bill Duvall of Stanford University. Kline intended to send the word “login”
over to Duvall. The “L” was received and then the “O” was received, but then the system crashed. After that, Kline tried again starting from the top sending back another L. So you could say, that the very first message sent over the internet was literally “LOL.” ARPANET was actually pretty cool, because it did something brilliant that truly maximized their use of these phone lines: packet switching. There was always the possibility of a network channel becoming temporarily faulty, so if you are sending a file to someone and it happens to go over that faulty channel, it just wouldn’t be sent at all. Not only that, the recipient
would have no idea you even sent anything in the first place. What packet switching does, is it takes that file, cuts it into a bunch of little pieces and sends each piece through many different channels on the network, and then pieces them altogether on the other side. This made sending files over the network much more reliable. So worst case scenario, if one or two of these channels were down, only a few parts of the file would be missing, rather than the whole thing. The recipient could see this and then request the sender to transmit the file again and get those remaining pieces. There is actually a great explanation of this in the 1971 version of Willy Wonka when Wonka explains his latest invention of transmitting candy bars through television.
“Uh, it’s WonkaVision” Now I am sure all of you know how an ordinary television works you photograph something “Yeah sure I do you photograph something and then the photograph is split up into millions of tiny pieces and they go whizzing through the air down to your TV set where they’re all put together again in the right order.” “You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak.” Yeah, its described exactly how would imagine. The Wonka bar is sent through the air in a million tiny pieces until it is reassembled on the other side. ARPANET didn’t invent packet switching, just greatly took advantage of it. It did with mainframe data what Wonka did with Wonka Bars. So yeah, Wonka was kind of a polymath. Aside from turning spoiled little kids into chocolate, he was also making great contributions to computer science.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” So yeah, after these groundbreaking achievements, ARPANET just continued to improve. To facilitate the sending of messages over ARPANET, programmer Ray Tomilson created a messaging program that separated the name of the user and the machine they were using with the less commonly used @ symbol, to make it easier to read. He called this “email.” So yes, in 1971, the internet, text messaging, and message threads technically did exist. It was just limited to places like universities, government agencies, laboratories, etc., and by 1973, it was even happening globally.
But ARPANET was far from perfect. While it was a complex network of computers, it was more of an “intranet,” a network that is private and limited to only one company. When it connected with England’s NPL Network, it became an extranet, a private network that allows only a specific outside party access. If it was going to get bigger, a few things needed to be nipped in the bud. MIT student Radia Perlman noticed a huge vulnerability in the network. The more sophisticated a network gets, the more likely you are to have paths that can get pretty funky called “bridge loops.” In a bridge loop, data that is being
transmitted can essentially get stuck going in a circle indefinitely. Think of when you point a microphone at a speaker; it creates a feedback noise that just gets louder and louder until your ears explode? A bridge loop is a computer version of that, and it can crash an entire network permanently. The only way to fix it would be to have all the computers on the network reboot, which is not very practical on a network as big as ARPANET. Thankfully nothing happened, but in just under a week, Perlman would create the Spanning-tree-protocol, which blocked off all these bridge loops, while still allowing all the pieces of data to move through multiple paths on the network. As ARPANET got bigger, so did its influence
on other networks such as CYCLADES and NPL. Over time, other kinds of networks would soon start popping up as well. We’ve already managed to get computers to connect with each other, but what if we could interconnect networks? A sort of INTER-network, internetwork…internet. Well, thanks to the beauty of undersea phone cables, this did happen with NPL and APRANET in 1973. But interconnecting networks wasn’t exactly easy unless both networks had very similar configurations. It was basically like trying to speak with multiple people who all spoke different languages. What if we could create a language that everyone spoke? Well,
everything would change forever on January 1, 1983, when ARPANET would adopt the Transfer Control and Internet Protocols: TCP/IP. Created by Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn, these protocols did many incredible things, including giving each computer its own distinct number, called an IP address, being able to detect and automatically resend packets that are lost in transmission (no longer requiring the user to do it manually), and being able to confirm that a transmission was successfully delivered. It also came with the User Datagram Protocol: UDP, which was a little more loosey goosey. Unlike TCP it didn’t prioritize making sure everything
was delivered properly, but instead focused more on transmitting data faster. TCP is like the mailman not giving you your package until you sign for it and UDP is like the mailman dropping the package off at your door. You get faster speeds, but at the expense of things possibly getting lost. I would tell you a UDP joke but, you probably wouldn’t get it. These protocols have since become the standard
for the internet and are still very much in use today. January 1, 1983 was basically the day that a bunch of intranets and extranets came together to become one big unified internet. Now that the internet was more robust and reliable than ever, it was time to start making it easier to use. What if instead of typing in a bunch of numbers to access a server,
you could just type in something easy-to-remember, like a name? Head of the Network Information Center, Elizabeth Feinler, was in charge of documenting pretty much everything about ARPANET, and essentially created a “phone book” listing the name of a server and its numerical address. At first, these were basically just decimal numbers, but when IP addresses came along, they turned into well…IP addresses, the format we recognize today. This “phone book” was called “hosts.txt” and each computer on the network would automatically have access to it. Feinler suggested that the names should be created based on the physical
location of the computer: so .com for commercial, .gov for government, .net for network, and so on. So instead of typing a long IP address, you could just type in example.com. Feinler and her team had created the Host Naming Registry and the WhoIs Protocol. The problem though, was that this “phone book” had to updated manually. If you wanted your domain added to the registry, you had to call Feinler’s support line on the phone and have her put it in for you. As the internet grew and more domains were registered, this would become
impractical and this one file would get too big. Paul Mockapetris would build on top of Feinler’s system and come up with the Domain Name System, or DNS. Instead of a single hosts.txt directory, you now had basically a bunch of hosts.txt directories all on different machines, called DNS servers, and these would all form their own network, and all the other networks would connect to that network, and any changes to these directories would now be done automatically.
You could argue that Feinler and Mockapetris are hugely responsible for why the internet is so user friendly today. Over time, more networks around the world would form and become part of the internet. The pie was getting bigger, but ARPANET’s slice wasn’t growing. It was becoming more outdated and less influential, and by 1989, would be decommissioned entirely. But the rest of the internet was still there, and
only continued to grow, and as computers got more personal, more people could use it, no longer limiting it to just researchers and scientists. It was now time for the internet to get even simpler. An employee working for the Swiss nuclear research facility, CERN, was frustrated at how complicated it was to share data in an organized manner, even having to walk up to coworkers to see which files they had on their computer. Then he had an
idea: what if there was a program where, rather than constantly logging in to terminals, you could share information with just the click of a button? This employee was named Tim Burners Lee, and he then turned his NeXT computer into a server which hosted a program he called the World Wide Web. Featuring new technologies such as http and html, data could now be shared in the form of web pages containing hyperlinks. The very first website is made public in 1991, making information more unified than ever. This “world wide web” could be accessed on the internet through web browsers such as Nexus, Lynx, and the most popular, Mosaic.
Al Gore was amazed at this growing internet technology, calling it an “information superhighway,” and wanted to give it as much of a platform as possible. The Gore Bill of 1991 helped provide internet access to children in public schools and even local libraries. As the audience for the internet grew, companies saw a new market for profit: Internet Service Providers were popping up left and right: They give you a modem, you hook it up to your phone line and computer, and boom, you have internet. Just make sure no one in your house needs to use the phone. But since there’s a lot of ambiguity in web-browsing, charging people
long distance for internet usage became less practical. I mean, when you called someone, at least you knew where they were located. For the average user, locating where a website is being hosted is a lot more difficult. Unexpectedly charging people hundreds of dollars per month for going online was scaring away business: until one company decided to abandon the old landline billing system, and charge users the same amount every month, like a subscription service, at an affordable price. This company was called America Online, and would dominate ISPs throughout the 90s. Major changes would be made to Mosaic to improve speed and add support for things like images. The name would be changed to Netscape Navigator, becoming
the gold standard for web browsing, until Internet Explorer came bundled with all copies of Windows 95, free of charge. Netscape would slowly fade into complete obscurity, before rebranding again into Mozilla Firefox. By 1997, over 70 million people would be online. Much like those who worked on the ARPANET and other networks of the time, everyone began contributing their own brilliant ideas to this decentralized structure, and the World Wide Web only got stronger. Eventually people adopted faster ethernet connections and then someone came up with the brilliant idea to transmit the internet over radio waves. Building
off the ideas of actress and scientist Hedy Lamarr, WiFi was born. And now, we’re here, all because America got jealous of the Russians. So, who invented the internet? Well, we all did, and yes, Mr. Gore, that even includes you. He invented the way we see the internet. He is arguably the reason you can open your web browser and watch this YouTube video right now. The US government took the initiative, but everyone else followed. The internet, by its very definition, is just us, joining together, and everyday new people are finding new ways to keep that bond stronger and more intimate. By staying online, we are contributing
our own ideas and thoughts to the world, and in turn adding our own piece to this huge, and still incomplete puzzle. So go ahead and keep creating, and help make the internet a better place. I’m just kidding, it was all Willy Wonka.
[WONKA SCREAMS] A special congratulations to RubberBrick for winning the Brilliant contest. They said that Brilliant’s Computer Science course helped them with making logical decisions in coding and also with just problem solving in everyday life. Love to hear it RubberBrick, and I’m glad you were able to get something so valuable out of the course. Thank you so much for watching! If you enjoyed this video, please subscribe, and hit the notification bell, so that you never miss a future video.