The Early History of the Internet
Written by Historian   
Thursday, 05 April 2018
Article Index
The Early History of the Internet
Exponential Growth

Expansion

At first TCP/IP and its related standards and technologies were just a backwater. Local area networks used other protocols such as Novell’s IPX and Microsoft’s NetBEUI. The Internet just didn’t seem to have anything to offer the personal computer revolution that was going on. The early implementations of  TCP/IP were too big and complex to run on a personal computer until David Clark at MIT produced a reduced implementation, first for the Xerox Alto and then for the IBM PC.

While all this was going on other wide area networks were being established. The most important was probably CSNET, which was funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). This was connected to the ARPANET by a gateway in 1980 and many regard this as the real moment that the “Internet” really came into being.

In the UK in 1984 JANET (Joint Academic NETwork) was set up to allow all UK academic establishments to connect their computers together. In the USA NSFNET was created to do the same thing and link the five new super computer centres that it was setting up. This provided a more powerful backbone than the original ARPANET and CSNET.

At this time the Internet was still an academic and military toy but what happened next is unique in the history of computing. A publicly funded facility was slowly but surely turned over to commerce. The NSFNET backbone had made the transition from an experimental packet switching system to something that used off-the-shelf equipment. In its eight and a half-year lifetime, the backbone had grown from six nodes with 56 kbps links to 21 nodes with multiple 45 Mbps links.

In the same time the Internet had grown to over 50,000 networks worldwide. The NSF put $200 million from 1986 to 1995 into building the Internet. From the 1980s on more and more commercial hardware was based on TCP/IP and it established itself it as the standard for wide and not so wide area networks. More importantly TCP/IP provided the technology needed to connect networks based on other communications protocols together – the world wide network being created really was an internet.

From 1988 on the NSF encouraged its academic networks to seek commercial customers in an effort to expand the network and lower costs. However, at the same time they also added an “Acceptable User Policy” which prohibited use of the communications backbone that it provided for uses not in support of research and education. This forced commercial users to restrict their Internet use to local traffic and they had to look for other long distance network carriers.

Slowly but surely the commercial extensions of the Internet started to make their own long distance links and the power of the NSF to restrict commercial use grew less and less. At first early commercial users were often worried about what they could legally do on the “academic” Internet but very soon the commercial Internet grew to the point where it swallowed the academic network and the NSF bowed out.

The original backbone was retired in 1995 and by then the Internet had made the transition to a fully commercial system. For once the government had given something a kick start and then left it to free enterprise to run.

At first the main users of the newly commercialised Internet were medium to large companies who found the email facilities it provided irresistible but then , in 1994, the Web was invented and the second great Internet application was born. There were lots of intermediates on the way to the Web that are now long forgotten – Gopher and WAIS for example.

 

map

The internet map

Today about the only one of the original alternative Internet protocols in wide use is FTP, and even this is being sidelined by Web-based file downloading. The Web made ordinary individuals want to connect to the Internet and it was allowed to spread into homes courtesy of the SLIP and PPP protocols that could connect personal computers to the Internet via a standard telephone line. Suddenly there were new companies – ISPs, Internet Service Providers – which were making money selling Internet time to home users.

The rest as they say is history.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 05 April 2018 )