How the Internet Was Constructed, Starting 60 Years Ago

The Internet directly led to the existence of viral memes and celebrities, some known only in certain corners of the web (The Ermahgerd Girl, Bad Luck Brian, the dancing banana) while others—such as Justin Bieber—parlayed views on YouTube into full-blown fame and fortune. FROM LEFT: SHUTTERSTOCK; HUNTLEY PATON; SHUTTERSTOCK (3); DIGITAL IMAGING BY NICK HARRAN/TOPIX MEDIA LAB; MATT WASSER/NOUN PROJECT

Al Gore did not invent the Internet—but the government sort of did. Newsweek explores what led to the invention of the Internet. This article, by Assistant Editor Bailey Bryant, is excerpted from our new Special Edition, The Founding Fathers of Silicon Valley, Exploring 60 Years of Innovation.

It's hard to navigate the Internet without running into audacious memes, relentless ads and, most likely, some type of cat. Which is why it's even harder to remember that the Internet itself started with the U.S. Department of Defense. The DoD laid the building blocks for the Net in the 1950s, when Cold War fears dominated government decision making and American leaders worried they wouldn't be able to communicate if the telephone system was destroyed. In response, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, was founded in 1958. Soon after, ARPA began developing a way to send information between computers, which were traditionally used only as math tools. The "galactic network" idea, introduced by ARPA scientist Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider in 1962, was lauded as a way for officials to maintain contact in any circumstance.

Bringing the idea to fruition required a process called packet switching, first envisioned by RAND Corporation engineer Paul Baran in the early 1960s. Packet switching breaks data into blocks before sending it down one of many possible paths to a destination. Vint Cerf, the computer scientist who co-designed the protocols and architecture of the Internet, likens packet-switching to the postal service. "It's the post office that's figuring out what to do with each of these individual letters or postcards, and that's how the Internet system works, too," he says. "The router says, 'Where is this supposed to go next?' And it transmits [the packet] to the next spot."

Packet switching allowed for the creation of the ARPAnet, which connected four university computers at UCLA, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah by the 1970s. As more universities joined the network, integration problems arose. Communication was difficult because each terminal operated under its own hardware and software protocols with no universal conventions—until Cerf created them in the late 1970s. "We sort of said, 'Here's how the road system works. If you build cars that are not longer than this or wider than this or taller than that or heavier than X, you should be able to get those vehicles to ride on the road,' or, in this case, on the Internet," Cerf explains. Thanks to Cerf's Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, the ARPAnet, renamed the Internet in 1984, became a truly worldwide network because each terminal operated with the same basic standards.

In 1989, British programmer Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web, a nexus of information from which anyone could retrieve documents. The first website,, which explained the Web and how to use it, went live in 1990. Although "Internet" and "Web" are often used interchangeably, they define separate things. While the Internet is a network of networks, the Web offers a way to transmit data via those networks, achieved by entering a URL (Uniform Resource Locator).

Although the first browser was WorldWideWeb (named after the space it navigated), Mosaic, a better browser, was created in 1992 by Marc Andreessen and helped create the Web as we know it. Before Andreessen and his team debuted Mosaic, the Web consisted of unformatted text and hyperlinks and was used almost exclusively for civic purposes. Mosaic allowed for the introduction of images (including cats), layouts (of stories about cats), sounds ("meow"), and fonts and forms. But most important was the browser's versatility, says Jon Mittelhauser, who developed Mosaic's Microsoft Windows version. "The biggest single factor that got the Web popular—and Mosaic did this—was the release of the Microsoft Windows and the Mac version," he says. These versions made the Web available to average users, and transformed it into a space where anyone could become a content creator. Its popularity grew from there, and by its 25th birthday in 2015, three in seven people worldwide were using the Web regularly. You can access it through your phone, your TV and, for some early adopters, your glasses. Everything on Earth has never been this accessible, regardless of whether you want it.

Cat fans, rejoice: You're living in a golden age.

You've Got Mail

ARPAnet computer engineer Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in 1971 from a computer in the same room as the recipient terminal. The invention was born out of necessity. Though not commissioned for the project, he was seeking a better way to communicate with other ARPA employees, especially those who weren't often available via telephone. He aimed to send messages to individuals, not their mailboxes. Tomlinson is also credited with designating the "@" symbol to separate recipients' names from their locations. Although frequently asked what the history-making message read, Tomlinson doesn't remember what he typed, though he suspects it was something along the lines of "QWERTYIOP."

This article was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition, The Founding Fathers of Silicon Valley, Exploring 60 Years of Innovation, by Issue Editor Alicia Kort. For more about the road to the digital age, pick up a copy today.

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How the Internet Was Constructed, Starting 60 Years Ago | Tech & Science