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A Brief History of the Internet

Below you will find a short article on the beginnings of the Internet that may be used for a classroom project. Before encouraging your students to read it, brainstorm for ideas asking the questions included in the material below. You may also encourage your students to research the history of the Internet on their own.

What is the Internet?

It is usually defined as a global network that connects other computer networks. Its essential parts are software and the protocols for controlling the data processing. In 1995 the Federal Networking Council accepted the following official definition of the Internet:

The ‘Internet’ refers to the global information system that -- (i) is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons; (ii) is able to support communications using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons, and/or other IP-compatible protocols; and (iii) provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high level services layered on the communications and related infrastructure described herein.


The Internet has some incredible capabilities because it allows the broadcasting of all kinds of materials worldwide and interaction between individuals and their computers regardless of their place. It has been also described as the largest machine that man has ever created.

How did it all begin?

The history of the Internet is quite complex as it includes technological, social and commercial aspects. Its early beginnings are associated with a comparatively modest analytical system designed in the early years of World War II whose aim was to provide support for research and some key technical developments of those days, e.g. radar. Some writers connect its development with the work of so-called ‘boffins’ - British scientists who carried out statistical studies of antisubmarine tactics. By the way, nowadays the word 'boffin' in informal British English is often used to mean a ‘mad scientist’.

War needs prompted the emergence of the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator that worked for the Navy. It was a huge mainframe computer weighing 35 tons and 95% of the budget for technical developments of this type came from military sources.

However, most sources see the real beginnings of the Internet in ARPAnet, i.e. Advanced Research Project Agency Network initiated in 1969 by a group of universities and private research groups funded by the US Department of Defense. It was J.C.R Licklider from MIT who in 1962 envisioned a network set of computers which could be accessed from any site.

What services does the Internet offer?

It offers data transfer, electronic mail and access to information in remote databases. One of the main Internet services is the World Wide Web, also known as the Web, which was developed in the 90s in Geneva. It is a service for the distribution of multimedia material including pictures, graphics, and music and of course text. Documents, presented in HTML, i.e. hypertext mark-up language, can be published on the Web.

Who is the ‘father’ of the Internet?

It is believed to be Vinton Cerf who worked in one of the first Network Working Groups at the University of California in Los Angeles. His collaboration with Robert Kahn, an MIT professor, resulted in the creation of software, called ‘protocols’, that enables different types of computers to exchange packets of different sizes at different computer clock speeds. It was only when scientists started using the increasingly complex medium for the purpose of communication within their scientific circles that the Internet began to free itself from strictly military uses.

Who sent the first e-mail message?

That honour belongs to Ray Tomlinson who first sent e-mail messages across the ARPAnet to a circle of science fiction fans linked by the Internet. He invented the software for that purpose and started sending the messages in 1972 and 1973. At first, scientists were quite timid about sending e-mails because they were not sure whether they were violating postal laws. But soon they discovered that the software allows the creation of mailing lists of people who share common interests. The first mailing list linked science fiction lovers. The managers of the ARPA system were not happy about this sort of development at the beginning but liberal views took over in the end.

Has the Internet changed your writing habits?

Do you still get handwritten letters these days? Is it the postman who delivers them to your letterbox or do you collect them at your post office? Or maybe you wait impatiently on your doorstep for a postman to get your post and read it as soon as possible. It is more probable, however, that you rush home to read your e-mails on the computer screen or spend every minute of your free time sending messages using your mobile phone. Professor David Crystal in his recent book Language and the Internet (CUP 2001) states that in many parts of the world e-mail has replaced more conventional forms of correspondence. (See our book review of David Crystal's book)

What is the future of the Internet?

The future is already with us. Many technological innovations are already available but not affordable to average Internet users. However, some scientists believe that the key developments will occur not in the field of technology but in users’ attitudes towards global networking. Widespread changes to the Internet and its constant evolution will affect every aspect of our lives from telephone services, newspaper-reading habits, shopping and banking to watching television.

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