What is the History of the Internet? - Origins & Timeline

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  • 0:05 ARPANET
  • 3:34 Electronic Mail
  • 5:09 World Wide Web
  • 7:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Zandbergen

Paul has a PhD from the University of British Columbia and has taught Geographic Information Systems, statistics and computer programming for 15 years.

While the Internet has become an integral part of our daily lives, it is a relatively recent technology. Learn about the origins of the Internet, e-mail and the World Wide Web.


The Internet has become part of everyday life, and it is difficult to imagine a world without it. The Internet as we know it today, however, is quite recent. Let's take time for a quick look at how the Internet came to be.

The Internet has its origins in the Cold War. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik. In response, the United States created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA. The plan emerged to create a communication network that would not be vulnerable to a nuclear attack. The basic idea was to use a distributed network and break messages into blocks to route over this network.

This specific military network was never built, but ARPA proceeded with working on a network for more general communication purposes, in particular to share research. In 1969, ARPANET was created, connecting computers at four universities across the country.

The network used a packet-switching approach, with messages broken up into arbitrary packets that were routed across the network. By 1974, this protocol was refined as the Transmission Control Program, or TCP. The document describing TCP used the term 'internet' for the first time, as shorthand for 'internetworking.' The term was not yet used to describe the actual network.

ARPANET grew in the next several years, with several other separate networks emerging at the same time, including the Computer Science Network (CSNET). The idea emerged to have multiple networks connected in a network of networks.

In addition to the existing TCP protocol, the Internet Protocol, or IP, was developed to ensure packets of information routed over a network were delivered to the right destination. In 1982, the combined TCP/IP protocols were adopted as the communication standard for different networks. This is when the term 'Internet' became widely used to describe the concept of a worldwide network or connected networks.

A high-speed backbone for the network was built by the National Science Foundation to connect supercomputing centers. Local networks were allowed to connect to this backbone, and this really made the Internet viable as a way to communicate between different networks. For a number of years, the Internet was mostly used by university researchers and defense contractors, but by the early 1990s, private companies also started using the Internet.

Meanwhile, local networks were developing in other regions, in particular in Europe. These networks also started using TCP/IP, and gradually, the Internet expanded across the globe.

Electronic Mail

Electronic mail has become an essential form of communication. Modern e-mail operates across the Internet, but the use of e-mail actually predates ARPANET. Some of the earlier e-mail systems date back to the mid-1960s, including the Automatic Digital Network, or AUTODIN, by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Compatible Time-Sharing System by MIT. These early systems worked on a limited number of terminals across relatively small networks. The systems were also not compatible with each other.

As ARPANET grew in importance, standards were developed for e-mail communication. The first ARPANET e-mail was sent in 1971, using the @ symbol to separate the name of the user from the user's machine. The most widely used e-mail standard, called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP, was developed in 1982.

Standardization led to a significant increase in the popularity of e-mail. In fact, e-mail was the first killer app of ARPANET and the Internet. A killer application is a computer program that is so useful and popular that it proves the core value of some larger technology. In this case, e-mail really demonstrated the usefulness of the Internet.

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