From Nikola Tesla's dreams of a "world wireless system" to Tim Berners-Lee's creation of the World Wide Web, dive into the surprisingly long history of when the internet was invented.
The internet is ubiquitous today. We use it to answer questions, shop, play games, talk to people, watch movies, and get directions (and you’re using it right now to read this article). Having instantaneous information at our fingertips has unquestionably changed humankind, especially in recent decades. But when was the internet invented?
Interestingly enough, the invention of the internet was a drawn-out process. Brilliant innovators like Nikola Tesla started envisioning a “world wireless system” in the early 20th century, musing about a device that would allow people to easily communicate across great distances. And the internet that we recognize today would ultimately have many fathers.
This is the surprisingly complex story of when the internet was invented, from early ideas about connecting people, to the involvement of the U.S. military, to the emergence of the modern-day World Wide Web.
From Nikola Tesla To The Department Of Defense
The internet existed as an idea long before its invention in the late 20th century. In 1926, Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla mused about a technology that would allow people to “see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles.” He also prophesied that the technology would fit on a device so small that “a man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
As HISTORY notes, others also envisioned some kind of interconnecting system in the subsequent decades. They imagined searchable databases for books and media and, eventually, some kind of network shared by computers. Then, the U.S. Department of Defense got involved.
In the 1960s, the Department of Defense started using a relatively new technology called “packet switching” to transmit electronic data. Their Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) used packet switching to connect several computers on a single network.
On October 29, 1969, ARPANET was able to send its first message between a research lab at UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute. The message, “LOGIN,” crashed the network and the institute only received “L-O.”
“Hence, the first message on the Internet was ‘LO’ — as in ‘Lo and behold!'” Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA professor of computer science who led the team that sent the message, recalled. “We didn’t plan it, but we couldn’t have come up with a better message: succinct, powerful, and prophetic.”
But was this the invention of the internet that’s widely used around the world today? Not exactly. There was still a big problem — the different networks that existed at the time spoke different “languages” when moving data and couldn’t “talk” to each other while internetworking.
At least, not yet.
Making Computers Talk To Each Other
As The Guardian writes, early computer networks couldn’t communicate with each other because they couldn’t properly understand each other (and therefore couldn’t share data). In the 1970s, two ARPANET researchers named Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf started working on a solution.
“[W]e had multiple networks… all of them packet-switched, but with different characteristics,” Vint Cerf later explained in an interview with Wired. “Some were larger, some went faster, some had packets that got lost, some didn’t. So the question is how can you make all the computers on each of those various networks think they are part of one common network — despite all these variations and diversity.”
The two men created a language that networks could share, which would allow computers to speak to each other. Their Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP, established a system for reliable data transfer, but was flexible enough that it would be able to evolve.
“It had to be future-proof,” Cerf told The Guardian, because if the protocol was written for just one point in time, it would later become obsolete.
When Was The Internet Invented?
So, when did the internet actually start? While some credit Kahn and Cerf as the fathers of the internet, the internet we recognize today continued to develop after ARPANET adopted TCP/IP as its communications model on January 1, 1983 (some cite this start date as the internet’s “birthday”).
As HISTORY notes, the modern-day internet arguably started about a decade later. A British computer scientist at CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research — named Tim Berners-Lee developed HyperText Markup Language (HTML) in the early 1990s. Soon after, Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web was released to the public. And from there, things started taking off.
“Everybody wanted to be there,” Don Nielson, a computer scientist who was in Silicon Valley when the internet was invented. “That was absolutely startling to me: the clamor of wanting to be present in this new world.”
As early as 1992, normal people started talking about “surfing the net” for the first time.
By 1993, there were about 600 websites online. By 1994, Yahoo — originally called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web” — was launched, and the website was swiftly followed by sites we recognize today like Amazon, Craigslist, and eBay.
Nearly three decades later, in 2021, some 4.66 billion were connected to the internet — or more than half of the global population. The internet has become an everyday part of most people’s lives, and is used for everything from online shopping to finding apartments and houses to even finding love.
So, when was the internet really invented? It’s a complicated question. Ideas about the internet began to percolate at the dawn of the 20th century, and scientists in the 1960s were able to start developing networks. Researchers in the 1970s and 1980s were able to take things one step further by helping networks to talk to each other, and the invention of HTML and the World Wide Web helped develop the internet we recognize in recent years.
Like many technologies, the internet had many fathers and pioneers. And given how fast it’s changed in the last several decades, it may soon be completely unrecognizable to even its earliest users.