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A Brief History of the Internet

Where and when did this behemoth we call "The Internet" begin? It seems to have sprung up overnight, growing like a rumor, at first of little import to anyone, then suddenly it seems it's in everyone's living room, having sneaked in overnight like some sort of bloodless coup. Where did it come from?

The seed for today's Internet began in 1969, when the US Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created a small computer network linking a total of four (4) computers:

By 1971, Arpanet had grown to 23 hosts, and by 1972, it had 40 hosts. In 1972, a new form communication known as "email" was invented. In 1973, the first two foreign nations, United Kingdom and Norway, connected to Arpanet, which was fast becoming the backbone of an as-yet-unnamed worldwide computer network.

From 1973 through 1981, many other computer networks (Telenet, Theorynet, Bitnet, CSNet, Minitel, etc.) came into existence. One by one these were connected to Arpanet to form one monstrous (still-as-yet-unnammed) worldwide "internetwork" of computer networks.

Then in 1982, a standard protocol suite, "Telecommunications Protocol / Internet Protocol" (TCP/IP), was agreed-on for use by Arpanet and its connected networks. The word "internet" (with a small "i") was coined to mean "a computer network using TCP/IP", and the word "Internet" (with a capital "I") was coined to refer to the sum total of all the world's connected internets. The Internet finally had a name!

Until 1986, growth of the Internet was very slow because it was still essentially a US military computer network, with all the bureaucratic restrictions that go along with that. In early 1986, there were still only about 1000 computers total on the Internet, and most people had still never heard of the word "Internet".

But then, in 1986, something happened that changed the Internet (and the world) forever. The National Science Foundation (a non-military research and education group) established a computer network called NSFNET, with assistance from NASA and DOE. NSFNET connected to the Internet and promptly started growing exponentially. Free of the restrictions of Arpanet, the Internet was now growing wildly.

By 1987, the number of computers on the Internet had exploded to 10,000. By 1989, it had exploded again to over 100,000. By 1990, Arpanet, the former backbone of the Internet, ceased to exist, strangled to death by it's own bureaucracy and the world's loss of interest. No one even noticed. The NSFNET had taken its place as the backbone of the Internet. By 1992, the Internet had over 1,000,000 computers on it, and it has been growing continuously since then.

In addition to growing in size, the Internet has grown in speed enormously over the years. The original NSFNET speed in 1986 was a mere 56Kbps. But in 1989 it was upgraded to T1 (1.5Mbps), and in 1992 it was accelerated to T3 (44.7Mbps). In the future, the backbone speeds may be even higher.

So that's the story (in short) of how the Internet came into existence.


Written Saturday April 4, 1998 by Robbie Hatley.

Last updated Tuesday January 5, 2010.

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