A brief history of the Internet and the World Wide Web

The origins of the Internet go back to the Cold War in the 1960s, and a U.S. Department of Defense initiative called "ARPA" (the Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was later renamed "DARPA" (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

One of the projects launched by ARPA was ARPANET, a network of interconnected mainframe computers with a decentralised communications structure which was designed to be resilient to disruption in the event of a possible nuclear attack. Along with similar decentralised computer network systems (such as e.g. BITNET in the United States and Cyclades, CERNET and JANET in Europe) a global infrastructure gradually developed which allowed military, government and academic computer systems to communicate throughout the world.

Essential for the smooth running of these networks was an idea called packet switching, which was originally proposed by Paul Baran and Donald Davies in the 1960s. The idea behind packet switching was that communications could be chopped up in to small packets and then sent out separately through the networks to be reassembled at their intended destinations. This approach had the advantage that communications did not need to be continuous, and if a connection were interrupted or even broken completely the rest of the packets comprising the complete transmission would reach their destination via any of the other routes which were found to be available to them at that particular point in time.

It soon became clear, however, that for compatibility between networks a single protocol for these kinds of communications would be required, and this led to a system called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol) which was developed by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn (who are nowadays often referred to as the founding fathers of the Internet) in the 1970s. TCP/IP was quickly adopted by most of the big networks, with ARPANET switching over to the new protocol in 1983. A "network of networks" emerged, and it was about this time the term "Internet" (sometimes called later just the "net") began to be used to describe its existence.

Another key innovation was the invention of the Internet domain name system by Paul Mockapetris and Jon Postel. This involved mapping hierarchical alphanumeric and text based identifiers to the numerical addresses (called "Internet Protocol" or "IP" numbers) which are used to unambiguously name each device connected to the network. This system made locations much easier to remember with addresses being composed of written names (such as e.g. "eagle.co.uk") rather than the underlying IP numbers on which at a lower level the software of the Internet really works.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the infrastructure was largely used by government and academic institutions (including universities and particle physics laboratories such as CERN - the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, located on the Franco-Swiss border just outside Geneva, Switzerland). Services available over the Internet included electronic mail (or "email" as it came to be known), remote login, file transfer and real time "chat" - allowing for the free movement of data and ideas between any users who were connected to the network in any part of the world. [N.B. The first email is believed to have been sent by Ray Tomlinson via ARPANET in 1971.]

These communication facilities were particularly embraced by particle physicists who had access to the (in those days physically large and expensive mainframe) computers which were required in order to get connected. Working in international collaborations on experiments such as those at CERN the Internet was extensively used by these physicists to keep in contact via email, to log in to machines from anywhere in the world to control equipment and issue data processing tasks remotely, to transfer data between computers in different countries and even to talk to each other in "real time" via a system called "Internet Relay Chat" or "IRC" (arguably the forerunner of today's social media messaging systems)!

Internet diagram

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As time went on, in addition to the mainframes many other different kinds of computers were connected to the Internet, including smaller minicomputers and a new generation of "desktop" machines based on microprocessors which were becoming increasingly available (as suggested by the illustration above). However some degree of technical knowledge was still generally required in order to use the operating systems and software running on these machines and take full advantage of the facilities available. The Internet was also effectively "off limits" for business, as the main (mainly government funded) network operators collaborating in the project stipulated that the network was to be for non-commercial use only. However around the beginning of the 1990s several big developments took place which were to open up the Internet to the world and change the way we communicate and do business forever.

Instrumental to these changes was the development of the World Wide Web - a universal and visionary system for publishing and viewing documents (or "web" pages) held together at locations stored on Internet servers (known as "websites") all connected together via links (hence the term "web") using the "http" (hypertext transfer) or "https" (secure hypertext transfer) protocols. This system was conceived and developed by (now Sir) Tim Berners Lee (who was later knighted in recognition of his efforts) with the backing of Robert Cailliau at CERN. The idea behind the World Wide Web* ("WWW" - or simply just the "web" as it later came to be known*) was that users could easily view documents irrespective of their location, and follow up on references to find related information simply by activating text or graphical links contained therein. In this way users could "hop" from document to document and website to website with their actual physical storage locations becoming effectively irrelevant - an activity which became popularly known as "surfing" the web.

[* N.B. The terms "Internet" (or simply just the "net") and "World Wide Web" (or simply just the "web") should not be used synonymously - as they're NOT the same thing. It should be clear from the above that the Internet is the global communications network of interconnected computers and other devices, whereas the World Wide Web is an information system which (along with other services and facilities such as e.g. email etc.) operates within it.]

The World Wide Web quickly developed in to serving the role of a kind of big library, with links providing active references between individual but related works and external agents such as search engines and directories maintaining independent indexing and catalogues for the easy retrieval of data. Although originally intended for use by particle physicists the World Wide Web began to be used by the wider public, as desktop personal computers which could be connected to the Internet for e.g.sending and receiving email via "dial-up" telephone connections were becoming more affordable and widely available. Besides these technical developments in the early 1990s the restrictions on business use of the Internet were lifted - a set of circumstances which led things to "take off" rapidly in the mainstream!

Businesses both large and small quickly began to see the advantages and opportunities of being connected to the Internet - not only for the convenience of communicating quickly and cheaply via email but also for researching and sourcing products and services as well as publishing information about their own offerings on the World Wide Web. A whole new generation of business websites sprang up, some of these allowing the purchase of items via secure connections for the transfer of payment details - effectively facilitating electronic commerce (or "ecommerce" as it came to be commonly known).

Both business and public interest in the opportunities presented was understandably intense, and a feverish amount of new publishing activity followed. Start-ups were often able to raise large amounts of investment funding from venture capitalists and banks without having sufficiently realistic business plans in place, and the ensuing "dot com" boom of the late 1990s led to an inevitable crash at the turn of the new millennium. A shake out of most of the unviable ventures was the consequence, leaving the more robust commercially focused operations to survive.

What followed next was an exciting and optimistic time, with even the smallest of operators being able to make a significant impact if they got things right. A wide range of search engines and directories provided initial (and diverse) entry points for users wanting to find information on the web, and even a very small business could gain a reasonable amount of market visibility by establishing listings on some if not all of these platforms (as well as by gaining traffic from other sources such as e.g. links from other websites and email marketing campaigns). A generally egalitarian culture prevailed, and the web was seen by many to provide a healthy level playing field for doing business online. This was the heyday of the first generation of web technology (which retrospectively and arbitrarily came to be known as "Web 1.0").

All this was to change, however, toward the end of the first decade of the new millennium. High bandwidth broadband connections became the norm even for home users, and a second generation of web based technology largely based on Ajax programming (arbitrarily dubbed "Web 2.0" by various commentators) led to the development of highly interactive and media intensive sites, facilitating widespread use of music and video sharing, blogs, self publishing and the emergence of new social media platforms. Mobile use also became commonplace, with users accessing information via purpose built and platform specific system applications (known as "apps") on smartphones and tablets rather than via the more usual and non platform specific desktop web browsers. In parallel with these changes the meteoric rise of entry point services such as Google and walled gardens such as Facebook was realised, the end result being that eventually just a few big corporate entities had taken control of access to much of the medium and were now effectively acting as gatekeepers to much of the information held online.

Throughout the 2010s the dominance of these big players was further consolidated, and it seemed to many that the egalitarian convictions of the web's founders had been long forgotten. At the time of writing, however, a new wave of development based on decentralised processing using the novel ideas of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies (which is already being dubbed "Web 3.0" in some quarters) began to emerge, and it will be interesting to see what effect this new "cryptoeconomy" will have on the future of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Web Foundation logo

Meanwhile various initiatives have been launched to take back control and put power back in to the hands of web users at a grass roots level. These include the World Wide Web Foundation's recently launched "Contract for the Web" - a statement of principles which it is hoped will help shape the future development of the medium.

More information

For more about the history and development of the Internet and the World Wide Web* the following books may be of interest:

[* N.B. The terms "Internet" (or simply just the "net") and "World Wide Web" (or simply just the "web") should not be used synonymously - as they're NOT the same thing. It should be clear from the above that the Internet is the global communications network of interconnected computers and other devices, whereas the World Wide Web is an information system which (along with other services and facilities such as e.g. email etc.) operates within it.]

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