Who invented the internet and when was it invented?

We all know that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and Karl Benz, the automobile. But who invented the internet? Even though we use the internet every day, we don’t widely cite a specific genius behind this innovation.
This is because the internet has been the result of gradual development rather than a flash of inspiration that can be attributed to a single person. There are definitely some key figures along this path who deserve to be celebrated, however.  Join us for a whirlwind tour of the history of the internet!
Woman with laptop on lap reads screen with interested expression
A lot of people don’t know who invented the internet – do you?

How did the internet begin?

A lot of people developed and contributed to the internet that we know today. Like many of the technologies that we take for granted nowadays, it got its start during the Cold War as the U.S. government sought to gain an edge over its bitter rival, the Soviet Union. In 1957 the USSR successfully launched the world’s first satellite into orbit, a move that is widely seen as marking the start of an era in which these two global powers battled for technological supremacy. This was reflected in the foundation of new U.S. government programs such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – as well as a key player in our story, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

This highly charged atmosphere generated the first steps on our internet history timeline. ARPA started working on one of the earliest versions of the internet – the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) – as a way to let its computers connect to each other. We may take this networking capability for granted today, but keep in mind that early computers were huge and immobile, and information was stored on magnetic tapes. Sending data to another computer actually involved a trip to the post office!

On October 29, 1969, ARPANET delivered its first message: a node-to-node communication from a computer in a research facility at UCLA to another computer at Stanford University. The message was short and sweet: “LOGIN”.  Unfortunately, the system crashed, and only the first two letters were sent!

Who initially developed what is now known as the internet?

A first seed in the development of the internet was planted in 1962 when ARPA scientist J.C.R. Licklider outlined a vision of an “intergalactic network” that was safe from enemy attack. But it wasn’t until the middle of that decade, under Robert Taylor, that plans were laid to make the dream of an interconnected network system come true. The agency also brought in Larry Roberts from MIT in January of 1967 to get the ball rolling. Another important name to be mentioned here is Leonard Kleinrock, who incorporated the mathematical theory that underpinned the technology, known as “packet switching.” Technology firm Bolt Beranek & Newman, who you may also remember for their role in developing electronic mail, was awarded the contract to build ARPANET.

Despite these claims to fame, none of the early visionaries behind ARPANET are now household names. This is because additional networks were also developed in an attempt to further data communication and computer networking. And as multiple networks of computers emerged, something was required to allow them to communicate with each other. Enter Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn.

Who invented the “internet”?

Computer scientists Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn can be found on every shortlist of people credited as inventors of the internet. This is because they came up with the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), aka the standard for how information is shared between different networks. In other words, their work is what would allow a network like ARPANET to communicate with another computer network. Kahn and Cerf went public with their ideas in 1974, leading to a system that is still in use today. RFC 675, the Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program, was published in December 1974. This document  also contains the first attested use of the term “internet” – short for “internetwork.”

Cerf and Kahn’s work is so integral to today’s internet that January 1, 1983, the day ARPANET and the Defense Data Network officially changed to the TCP/IP, is considered the "official" birthday of the internet. It marks the day on which the networks were finally connected by a universal language. And for those of you keeping track, this means the internet celebrated its fortieth birthday this year!

World Wide Web: The internet is made public

You may think that this gives Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn a lock on the title “Inventor of the Internet.” However, there is another strong contender. As already discussed, the 1980s saw multiple computer networks (e.g. in military installations, universities, corporations, etc.) finally able to connect and communicate with one another. However, the internet was still not accessible to the general public. This was first made possible by the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989.

And who invented the World Wide Web? English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee.
Father of the World Wide Web: Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 2014
Father of the World Wide Web: Tim Berners-Lee in 2014

There is no disputing that Berners-Lee is the inventor of the systems that make the internet something that you and I can use in our everyday lives. For example, Universal Resource Locators (URLs), which allow quick access to publicly hosted information, clickable hyperlinks, the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) – not to mention the web browser! The World Wide Web software was placed in the public domain in 1993, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Gopher vs. Web

One interesting side note: if internet history had developed slightly differently, we might all be “burrowing like gophers” instead of “surfing the web.” That’s because a team at the University of Minnesota (UMN) under Mark McCahill developed a protocol for distributing and retrieving documents on IP networks called the Gopher system, releasing it in 1991. (The gopher is the UMN mascot.) Even though the Gopher system had a slight head start over the World Wide Web and soon gained users, it fizzled out by the late 1990s. This was at least partly because UMN starting charging licensing fees in 1993, while CERN remained committed to never charging royalties for the WWW.
 

History of the internet: Timeline

Here are five important milestones in the development of the internet:

1965: The invention of “packet switching,” a way of sending information from one computer to another. This allows two computers at MIT’s Lincoln Lab to communicate with each other for the first time.

1969: UCLA, Stanford Research Institute (SRI), UCSB, and University of Utah connect through the ARPANET and the first message, “LOGIN,” is sent to the SRI computer. Due to a system crash, only the first two letters “LO” are transmitted.

1974: “Fathers of the Internet” Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn publish the details of their Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which enables two computers to exchange data streams. They go on to develop the Internet Protocol, or IP.

1983: The Domain Name System (DNS) sets up a standard system of domain names (e.g., with the endings .com, .edu, .gov, .net, .org,  etc.) for naming websites. These names are easier to remember than the numeric designations of IP addresses (e.g., 163.496.631.75).

1989: Working at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee creates the World Wide Web and develops the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the basic building block of web content
 

And there we have it – the history of the internet in a nutshell. Can any of us imagine our lives today without it? We hope you found this deep dive as fascinating as we did.

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This article first appeared on Sept. 6, 2021 and was updated on June 29, 2023.
Images: 1&1 / GettyImages / Image of SirTim Berners-Lee by Paul Clarke , CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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