Dr. Mark Humphrys

School of Computing. Dublin City University.

Home      Blog      Teaching      Research      Contact


CA216      CA249      CA318

CA400      CA651      CA668

History of the Internet

I am going to consider all sorts of things as the "start" of the Internet.
Some people won't agree. They would say the start of the Internet was 1969 (Arpanet) or even 1983 (TCP/IP).

The "start" of the Internet - 1753


This letter is arguably the start of the Internet.
A letter to The Scots Magazine in 1753, first suggesting using electrical properties to transmit communications along a wire.
It was not until the following century that working long-distance systems were built.
From p.73 of vol.15 (1753) of The Scots Magazine.

If we consider this letter as the start of the Internet (if only as an idea), then the Internet is years old.


"Internet no.1" - The telegraph system, 1843 onwards

19th century electric telegraph (morse code-type communication on copper wires). First ever global communications network.

See book: The Victorian Internet (and here), Tom Standage, 1998.

  1. First proper line: Paddington to Slough 1843.

    If we consider this line as the start of the Internet, then the Internet is years old.

  2. Washington to Baltimore 1844.
  3. First submarine cable: England linked to France 1845 (working properly from 1851).
  4. England linked to Ireland 1853.
  5. Telegraph used in Crimean War 1854.
  6. Atlantic cable laid 1858 (working properly from 1865). See here.

  7. Online flirtation (not among the public, but between remotely-separated male and female telegraph operators during idle downtimes) existed from the start, and often led to real world encounters.

  8. The "Steampunk" genre.

Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes by Ella Cheever Thayer describes online dating in 1879.
(Even 1979 would be remarkable enough!)
Cover from here. Also here.

"Internet no.2" - The telephone system, 1876 onwards

Long-distance real-time audio. On copper wires.

The telephone system:
When the telephone system started in 1876, it was like (a). Each phone needs link to each other.
Soon replaced by (b). Switching office sets up temporary circuit between caller and callee for a call.
Switching office can only cover limited number of local phones. To make long-distance calls (between phones served by different switching offices), model in (c). 2nd level switching office. Eventually 5 levels.

Irish business letterhead from 1898, showing both telegraph and telephone contacts.

"Internet no.3" - The Internet, 1969 onwards

The Internet has been running since 1969 (Arpanet).

1.5.1 Internet

(a) Phone network. Failure (or destruction) of a few key nodes can fragment network into a number of isolated islands.
(b) Proposed distributed network, Paul Baran, 1960. Each node also acts as a router.

Origins: A network that can survive nuclear war

Myth: The Internet grew out of the military's nuclear war communications network.

Truth: What happened was there were military-inspired studies in the early 1960s of how to built a robust network that could survive attack - notably first-strike nuclear attack. The answer is to decentralise everything, including addressing and routing, to have no essential HQ, and also to have redundant paths.

Major US academic research centres (including military research bases with links to academia) took this idea in the late 1960s and built the Arpanet network that eventually evolved into the Internet. It was full of scientists and university academics from the start.

Growth of Arpanet from (a) 1969 to (e) 1972.


The Internet was originally set up not for email, not for sharing papers, documents or programs, not really for user communication at all in fact, but rather to allow sharing of expensive hardware (run programs remotely on someone else's expensive federally-funded computer).

Email was a surprise when it took off on Arpanet in the early 1970s.
Later, email discussion lists started, and the usenet decentralised discussion-group system, 1979.

File sharing would be done between sites when they worked together on a project. Later came the concept of a permanent archive of files that anyone on the network could access at any time. Archives of programs were set up, and later archives of documents of all sorts. It was not until the mid-1980s that it became clear that an embryonic electronic "library" of documents was starting to be built up online. Now, of course, the library has billions of documents.

Internet had steady growth and usefulness through 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, but did not really take off until Web idea invented.

As late as 1993, there was (almost) no business and (almost) no home civilian users on the Internet. It was still dominated by the academic, scientific, non-commercial users that had always dominated it. But the infrastructure was in place for an explosion in both business and civilian use.

NSFNET backbone in 1988.

The oldest domains

whois nordu.net shows creation on 1 Jan 1985.
This is NORDUnet, the research and education network of the Nordic countries.
nordu.net still exists.

whois symbolics.com shows creation on 15 Mar 1985.
This was a company called Symbolics which is now defunct.
symbolics.com has been sold, and survives now as a novelty - the oldest .com in the world.

The killer app - Mosaic web browser, 1993

Web invented as a system running on the Internet 1989 (Tim Berners-Lee, CERN).
But did not take off until had a mouse-driven interface - Mosaic, 1993 (Marc Andreessen, NCSA).
Web explodes. Internet explodes.

The modern Internet

"Server" = Single computer or Multiple computers

A "web server" originally meant a single physical server. It still does, for some sites. We can have these situations:

Some terms:


Server farm.
Front end routes HTTP requests to different nodes.
Each node is a powerful server with access to all the files/database the site uses.

The movie The Social Network (2010), about the invention of Facebook.

Tour of a Google Data Center in Oregon.
This is a 360 degree video. Click to drag.

Feeds      w2mind.org

On Internet since 1987.