The birth of the internet

Every morning, people get in their car and drive to work. They think about the day ahead, listen to the radio, and get angry by idiots in cars. They rarely think about how the engine of their car works. People need to learn how to drive, of course, but they didn’t learn about car engineering or get a history lesson from their instructor on the early beginnings of automobiles.

Still, a lot of people know that Karl Benz invented the first car. And most people (hopefully) also know what kind of engine they use: Gasoline, Diesel or Electric.

Some technologies you use all life long without knowing how it works and without being aware of its history. That’s the beauty of well-engineered technology.

Today we drive less and less to work and work online. We didn’t learn to browse the internet, like driving, though. We didn’t go to a ‘browse school’, nor took any exams. We learned it like walking and talking. Just by doing. And all became digital natives.

Digital archeologists

When you want to learn something about the technology or the history of cars (or just about any subject), what do we do today? We look it up on the internet! So ironically to learn more about the internet we also need to look it up on the internet.

The internet is documenting history, including its own history. But what is even more ironic about this, is that the state of the internet at a certain moment isn’t that well documented. The internet itself always lives in the now, whereas data moves and websites constantly change.

If we want to know how a website looked like ten years ago, the only thing we have is the internet archive:

How many of us really use this website? Probably not many, but it will prove invaluable for the digital archeologist of the future.

A slice of bread

To find out on the inner workings of a car, looking things up on the internet is not enough. You really need to look under the hood. There, one can touch parts of the engine and smell the gasoline. But with the internet, this isn’t possible. We can’t touch or smell it. At the end, it’s just data that moves.

Physicist Russel Seitz measured the weight of multiple billions of electrons, which make up the data that we send back and forth every day. His answer, the internet weighs around 50 grams.

50 grams is around the weight of a slice of bread. And this makes sense as the internet has been one of the best inventions since sliced bread, but its weight says just as much as your weight say about your character.

OK, let’s turn back online for help. According to Wikipedia, the internet is:

The global system of interconnected computer networks”.

This definition consists of various parts:

  • Global system
  • Computers
  • Interconnected networks

All of these parts must have existed before the internet was turned on the first time. Global of course means here our little planet (though there is nothing holding against that one day it will be used in other places like Mars).

Our planet exists for around 4,5 billion years. Then for a long time, not a lot happened that contributed to the history of the internet… until the arrival of computers.


Computers are the machines that process data. Some say its history can be traced 2000 years back (like most things) to Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism has baffled experts since it was found on a Roman-era shipwreck in Greece in 1901. The 2,000-year-old device often referred to as the world’s oldest “computer”, but its findings were incomplete and can hardly be compared to a digital computer.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Others attribute the first computer to Charles Babbage (Hardware) and Ada Lovelace (Software). They created the so-called analytical engine in the 19th century. This machine however was never built.

The first digital computers that really materialized were built during World War II. In general, the Z3 computer designed and built by Konrad Zuse is considered the first computer in the sense that was programmable. In 1998, it was even proven by Raúl Rojas that the Z3 would have been a Turing-complete machine. Such a machine can (at least in theory) solve any computation problems.

Konrad Zuse (1910–1995) posing before a reconstructed Z3

Turing-complete machines are basically general purpose, but at first the computers were built for specific purposes like the British Colossus (1943), a computer to decipher intercepted radio messages. Note that this computer was designed by Alan Turing himself, but is not the same as Turing’s machine that helped decode Enigma which was not a computer, but an electromechanical machine named Bombe.

ENIAC, the first American general purpose used computer, was built in 1946. It was run by the University of Pennsylvania, having cost almost $500,000. The computers that came after it, between the 1950s and 1970s, were mainly mainframes: very large computers that could run hundreds to thousands of users at the same time. Banks and insurers in particular made extensive use of such mainframes. These mainframes tend to operate fully independently.

Interconnected networks

The notion of networking can be traced back to the early 1960s. It was first proposed by Leonard Kleinrock in 1961, in his paper titled “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets”.

Besides Kleinrock other researchers were independently also investigating data communication through data packages. For example, Paul Baran investigated the use of packet switching for secure voice messages over military networks. In England, Donald Davies and Roger Scantlebury, while working at the National Physical Laboratory, were also working out similar ideas. The term “packet” was coined by Davies in 1965, to describe data sent between computers over a network.

These various ideas came together by J.C.R. Licklider and Lawrence Roberts (colleagues of Kleinrock’s at MIT) who lead the computer science program at the Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA) in the United States. Roberts published an overall plan for a so-called ARPANET. The precursor of today's Internet.

The ARPANET team

Just a month after the moon landing on 20 July 1969 the first data package was sent on ARPANET. Two months later the internet was officially born, with the first data transmission being sent between UCLA and SRI on October 29, 1969, at 10:30 p.m.

Part 2: The childhood years of the internet




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