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The History of the Net

The Internet and World-Wide Web are the greatest telecommunicational breakthrough since the telephone. The enormous growth that the web has enjoyed in the last decade has come very quickly to a system still in its relative infancy. Let's take a look back at how it came about...

Clock This page was last updated on 2012-08-21

How the Internet came about

The foundations of the Internet were formed when packet-switching networks came into operation in the 1960s. Transmitted data is broken up into small packets of data, sent to its destination, and reassembled at the other side. This means that a single signal can be routed to multiple users, and an interrupted packet may be re-sent without loss of transmission. Packets can be compressed for speed and encrypted for security.

Computers at the time were massive, primitive structures. The only type of network in operation before was made up of terminals that logged into mainframes. This is similar to the present-day client/server relationship we have with the modern Internet, except the computers are usually comparable in terms of power, and so the Internet is known as a peer-to-peer system.

ARPANET and onwards

Early packet-switching networks were set up in Europe. Development of a similar system began in America in 1968, and went into operation the year after in the US Defence Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The ARPANET used Network Control Protocol as its transmission protocol from 1969 to 1982, when NCP was replaced with the now-widespread TCP/IP.

Now that the technology was in place, strategies were put forth on what to do with it. Eventually, the first large-scale Internet was created — a set of interconnected US military computers. The idea was simple: if an attack was laid down on one part of the system, the rest of the system would still be operational enough to blow the hell out of whoever was attacking the country. Alternatively, losing the mainframe in a centralised system would spell disaster. This was during the height of the Cold War, and the inevitable nuclear war looked very close to happening.

Services like Email found their first usage through the ARPANET system, and its obvious benefits were lauded by all who participated. The popular bulletin-board system, Usenet, was developed between the 70s and 80s. Around this stage all of the main universities in the US were connected to the network and used it for transmitting experimental data and educational resources. It was found to be an excellent method of sharing information. In 1973 the first international (and indeed intercontinental) connection was made to the University College of London in England.

The rise of USENET

USENET contributed more than anything else to the way the Internet began to take off. The spirit of information sharing and discussion that is the hallmark of the net was encapsulated in this system. Usenet is considered to have begun in 1979, and went through a few revisions. In an early triumph for freedom of speech, the restrictions on taboo subjects like recreational drugs were circumvented by independent people setting up their own servers and hosting discussions there instead of on the main ARPANET servers, where this was forbidden. New transmission methods were developed, the standard becoming NNTP (Net News Transfer Protocol), which is still in use today.

The introduction of personal computers in the late 70s brought a large new audience to the developing Internet. They used email and participated in discussions on networks like Usenet, Bitnet and Fidonet, which eventually were all joined together. The Internet was growing exponentially. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) became available in 1988 and communities formed in chat rooms.

World-Wide Web unleashed

Tim Berners-Lee It was only in 1991 that what we now call the World-Wide Web was introduced, developed by » Mr. Tim Berners-Lee, with assistance from Robert Caillau (while both were working at » CERN. Tim's now a member of the » W3C). Tim saw the need for a standard linked information system accessible across the range of different computers in use. It had to be simple so that it could work on both dumb terminals and high-end graphical X-Window platforms. He got some pages up and was able to access them with his 'browser'.

Quickly researchers got interested and started designing web sites and browsers. In 1993 the first proper web-browser, Mosaic, took the Internet by storm; having been developed at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA). As soon as it was ported to PCs and Macs it immediately effected a boom in web usage.

Quickly services were set up for domain registration and sites began turning up on the web, running on very basic HTML. Even at this stage, malicious viruses and worms were infiltrating computers connected to the Internet. The web had an incredible 341, 634% annual growth rate. Important sites like the White House and Pizza Hut appeared. Online shopping sites showed up. The www was quickly the most popular service on the Internet. It was around 1995 when the first large ISPs like AOL and CompuServe began offering Internet access to the masses. Technology like Sun's Java and search engines are released. The somewhat legendary browser war was in full swing between Netscape and Microsoft, with new browser releases coming every month and the web becoming increasingly fragmented. Despite this, the public's enthusiasm for the Internet went unbridled.

Today, in whatever year this is, the web is still growing at an amazing rate. Technology has improved considerably, and the web is regarded as an indispensable tool for education, business and entertainment. There are billions of pages on the web, with thousands more being added every hour. The Internet is a system that is nigh-on impossible to destroy, and looks set to become an ever-larger influence on the world in the future.

What is the Internet?

The Internet today is a large-scale network of millions of computers that allows continuous communication across the globe. The various applications of the Internet are:

  • The World-Wide Web (the web or WWW)
  • Electronic Mail (E-Mail)
  • File Transfer Protocol (FTP)
  • Internet Relay chat (IRC)
  • USENET (a news service)

The World-Wide Web

The www is the reason the Internet has become as popular as it has. This is the part of the Internet that the majority of users see — the websites and the pages that make them up. The web is the most widely used service of the Internet, accessed through a web browser like Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. These pieces of software are gradually integrating other parts of the Internet into them (most notably email and ftp), so that eventually we will have one interface to the entire array of services the Internet offers.

The web is an immense collection of web pages, linked together with hypertext links. Thousands of new pages of information are added to the heaving web every hour. Each page is placed on a server, a computer continually connected to the rest of the web. The information is then available to anyone else with access to the Internet. Web pages can have a mixture of text, graphics and multimedia. Nowadays, there's information on practically anything you could be interested in available somewhere on the web. You can use a search engine to find what you want.


Electronic Mail works in much the same way as traditional mail (now charmingly labelled 'snail-mail') does. Anyone is allowed to sign up for an email address and then people can send you messages, or attach files from their computer and send them too. The main benefit of email is the close to instantaneous delivery of messages that occurs. You can send an email to the other side of the world and it will arrive in less than a minute. You can also sign up to weekly newsletters and have information you want delivered right to your computer.

File Transfer Protocol

While web pages are transferred between computers using the http protocol, other types of files are sent using FTP. People can share files, like music and videos, among each other and the rest of the world by uploading them to a server and allowing others to download them to their own computers.

Internet Relay Chat

IRC is a service that allows you to connect to your chosen channel and talk in real-time to people with the same interests as you. You can download » mIRC and start chatting right away.


USENET (Unix User Network) is a system of bulletin boards where you and anyone else can post messages and people will read and reply to them. As with IRC, you will find boards set up for all sorts of groups of people. The search engine » Google has set up a web-interface for these discussion boards.