Image: Guido Rosa (Getty Images).
It’s unfathomable to consider a modern world without the internet, with our society now firmly reliant upon being online in order to function. But while the internet is the most important service in the modern world, those behind it are arguably not as well-known as they should be, while the history of the internet itself and how it got to where it is today is rarely considered while people spend their days idly browsing Facebook on their smartphones.
With that being said, let’s take a look at who created the internet and a selection of other important web facts that have shaped it into what it is today, changing the course of human history in the process:
Who created the internet?
The internet was developed by a number of people throughout the 20th century; it’s not like one day someone put a series of tubes together, and then suddenly men in fedoras were granted the opportunity to insult one another in anime forums. The origin of the internet as we now know it really began in the 1960s, when packet-switching was developed in order to allow data to more easily be sent to other computers. The first packet-switching network was designed by the UK National Physical Laboratory’s Donald Davies, with him developing a concept that allowed data to be cut up on computer, before being put back together on another. This helped avoid congestion, making communication between computers a lot easier.
Then in the ’70s, TCP/IP protocols invented by the “fathers of the internet” Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn allowed for the packets of data to be labelled, ensuring that while some pieces of data may take a different route, they could still arrive at their destination and be re-assembled. This would become the standard networking protocol on the ARPANET, a US packet switching network, and both technologies would become the foundation of the internet, with the first email being sent using this network. “The test messages were entirely forgettable … Most likely the first message was QWERTYIOP or something similar,” said Ray Tomlinson, the man who sent the email.
Then in 1989 British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while employed by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) in Switzerland, which allowed for the transmission and access of information via the internet. Initially developed by Berners-Lee in order to allow scientists to more easily communicate with one another, this was the foundation on which the online world we now know was built, with hypertext and links allowing users to “surf the web” and its myriad sites and pages.
Wait, so how was Al Gore involved?
A popular but completely false claim is that former US Vice President Al Gore stated verbatim that he had “invented the internet.” This widely mocked quote is a fabrication, with it stemming from a 1999 interview with CNN (via Snopes) in which Gore said the following:
“During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.”
Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn later defended Gore’s comments, writing in a joint statement: “Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development.” They continued: “As Vice President Gore promoted building the Internet both up and out, as well as releasing the Internet from the control of the government agencies that spawned it. He served as the major administration proponent for continued investment in advanced computing and networking and private sector initiatives such as Net Day. He was and is a strong proponent of extending access to the network to schools and libraries.”
They concluded: “The Vice President deserves credit for his early recognition of the value of high speed computing and communication and for his long-term and consistent articulation of the potential value of the Internet to American citizens and industry and, indeed, to the rest of the world.”
What was the first website?
Unsurprisingly, considering he created the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee also created the very first website and it’s still accessible to this day. Going online in 1990, the primitive homepage of the site explained “The World Wide Web Project,” including hyperlinks to separate webpages with more information regarding the web in its primitive stages.
The website was taken down by CERN in 1993 after the organization considered it to no longer be relevant, though was brought back online in 2013 after they acknowledged its importance as a historical record of our technological development.
How did the world react to the rise of the internet?
Though imagining a world without internet is nigh-on impossible these days, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web wasn’t debuted without its fair share of criticisms. In a 1991 article titled ‘WORLD WIDE WHAT?’ UK tabloid newspaper The Sun wrote the following regarding Berners-Lee’s invention:
“A British computer geek’s brainwave…could enable computer users to see documents and pictures made available by others in “cyberspace”. He uses the “internet system”, which so far only links academics but could eventually include anyone….
One scientist said “This could be huge. The idea of linking strangers worldwide, sharing ideas instantly is mind-boggling.” But another sneered “They said Sinclair’s C5 would change the world. Now you’d struggle to give one away.”
TIME magazine was much more favorable (and correct) in its coverage of the internet, offering this iconic cover explaining how the “info highway” was going to bring about “a revolution in entertainment, news and communication.”
Then there were the commercials from internet service providers (ISPs) looking to convince people to get online, such as those featured in the below collection of clips recorded in 1998. Keep an eye out for a young Aisha Tyler plugging AT&T’s service:
Is internet addiction real?
As the internet became more prevalent within modern society, there was an increasing concern that people were becoming addicted to it. Problematic internet use (PIU) is a term used to describe those whose excessive internet use is having a negative effect on their lives, with it first coined by Ivan Goldberg, M.D., in 1995. Initially theorized by Goldberg in a satirical essay, internet addiction has since been widely debated alongside the rise of social networks, online gaming and gambling.
While it’s still debatable whether or not excessive internet use can be categorized as addiction — Goldberg said that treating internet addicts should also mean that support groups should be instated for people who have other compulsive habits, such as those who consistently cough or read a lot of books — there have been numerous reports over the years of people dying due to spending too much time online. For instance, back in 2015 a 32-year-old man Taiwanese man was found dead in an internet café after a three-day gaming binge (via IBTimes). Earlier that year, a 24-year-old man in China also died in an internet café after playing the popular MMO World of Warcraft for 19 hours straight.
However, despite these reports most doctors don’t agree that internet addiction is real, with it largely being viewed as a problematic behavior. This hasn’t prevented numerous internet addiction treatments from popping up across the world, though, with China having “boot camps” where former military personnel push attendees through a rigorous program intended to stop their compulsive internet use, while South Korea — the most connected country by a considerable margin as a result of its cheap, high-speed internet — has over 140 internet addiction centers.
What did the internet’s most popular websites look like when they were created?
Every website has to start somewhere, and with the vast majority of the internet’s most popular websites having been around since around the time the World Wide Web first began gaining popularity, they have inevitably received a few substantial makeovers during this time period.
Take a look at what many of the web’s most popular sites looked like at the time of their creation: