History of the internet: how it all began

History of the internet: how it all began

By: Ryan Jay

23 Jul 2020

The internet. Where would we be without it? It’s something we shudder to think about. In fact, the internet has become so synonymous that using it has become second nature. Instinctual, you might say. But we don’t have to look that far back to a time where we were struggling with its intrigue, potential and implications.

Back in the day, decades before the first email was sent and the first tweet was posted, nobody could have guessed how profound the internet would be. Well, everyone except H.G. Wells of course, who predicted the exact concept in an essay written in 1936:

“The whole human memory can be, and probably in [a] short time will be, made accessible to every individual.

It was a bold vision from the sci-fi author, but not surprising given his stories about time travel and alien invasion. But it's still remarkable, as global communication was very much in its infancy at the time. But the internet has rapidly developed as a technology. The sophistication that we enjoy today has been the result of decades of evolution. In the first of a three part series, we’re going to take a look at how we got to this point and what the major moments of internet history have been.

Early beginnings

When data transmission started in the 1960s, the internet was always an inevitability. But who was responsible for shaping the internet as we know it today? We can credit that to Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web. In March 1989, Berners-Lee proposed an information management system. Later that year, he executed a successful communication between a client and a server, via the internet.

Let's slow down a moment. What do we mean by all that? The internet, in its simplest terms, is a network of lots of different computer systems. Think of it as the town or community you live in. You and your neighbours all use the roads to travel to places you need to be. The internet is that town. But a town needs good roads, otherwise how can we get places? The internet had been knocking around for some time without a good road network. Berners-Lee, in essence, created those first roads. His initial communication started the process of bringing it all together. And with the World Wide Web, the internet phenomenon took off.

So what happened next? The World Wide Web opened up the possibility of webpages. Anything that you see online on a web browser (such as Google Chrome or Internet Explorer) is a web page. Now, think how much stuff you do on a web browser. All those web pages made possible by this pivotal invention, all thanks to Berners-Lee.

The internet starts to boom

Once people got to grips with web browsers and “surfing the internet”, web based email services (or webmail for short) became prominent. The first webmail was Hotmail (a clever play on html, ie hotmail), which launched in 1996. Since then, countless webmail clients have become available, and it’s likely that the very inbox you use today to read emails, check offers and delete spam is a direct descendant of the very first email client.

Email wasn’t the only revelation in the early nineties, and other firsts were being established at a lightning pace. Search engines (dedicated archives that were able to search and extract from the World Wide Web) were cropping up as early as 1993. It wasn’t until 1996 that things got interesting, though. A project began between Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In their eyes, search engines were basic. They wanted to create a tool that ranked web search results in order of importance for the initial query. A couple of years later, Google came to the fore.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Google’s success. Their presence online is ubiquitous. When you think of search engines, you automatically think of Google. In reality, they're so dominant that their company name has become the verb. Want to find out the number one single on your birthday? Google it. Need to find a plumber on short notice? Google it. Want to find the best fibre broadband supplier in your area? Google Shell Energy Broadband of course.

But Google isn't the only tech company that’s become synonymous with their industry. To find out more, you only need to look at the online shopping boom.

The online shopping revolution

Shopping used to be so simple. And by simple, we mean stressful. Picture this: a whole day blocked out to buy things. You spent hours ambling around shopping centres and more time slumped in a queue to pay. It was the quintessential weekend British pastime, made more exciting if you had kids to bring along. But the noughties saw the rise of a phenomenon that took the pain out of retail therapy. In the industry it’s referred to as eCommerce, and Amazon has sat at its vanguard since it started.

Amazon is a prime (no pun intended) example of taking an opportunity and running with it. Founder Jeff Besoz had no initial plans for an all-purpose online retailer. But one day he read a report that projected annual web commerce growth at 2,300%. That made his mind up, and he refocused his company’s objectives. Starting his stock exclusively with books and operating out of his humble garage, Amazon launched online in July 1995.

Since then, the company has evolved to sell virtually everything, including your weekly grocery shop. Whatever you need can be yours with a click of a button. No longer do you need to queue up outside of physical stores for the best deals. Amazon has such a command over the eCommerce market that, much like Google, they’ve become an omnipresent name across the entire online space. And they haven't stopped there. With Alexa in the home and Prime Video on the TV, they're well on the way to achieving the same omnipresence of Google.

The internet in today's world

There’s so much to talk about when it comes to the internet’s history. When did instant messaging come into the fold? What kick started the rise of social media? Who made the first video call? But these parts of the internet story play such an important role today. Especially with the unprecedented time that COVID-19 has brought. So, we’ll save all that until the next blog, where we discuss the internet’s role in today’s society.

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