We spend so much time on the internet nowadays that we forget how much effort and time it took to grow the net to the size that it is today. Even within the late nineties itself, the internet was something of a novelty, a toy for the curious or the bored. This humble writer easily remembers a time when the only fun thing to do on the internet was look up if certain companies had websites that you could go on. The usb cables and the zipcord fiber optic cable and the surge protectors and the cat5e network cables were all far in the future. All we had was the strange buzzing sound of dial up leading us into a place of dingy light and strange rotating text files. It was a different time. A more mysterious time, to be honest. The funniest part is that, historically speaking, that wasn’t even one small modicum of the beginning of the internet itself. Actually, the internet started way earlier than that, in a time decades before when it was actually a whole group of separate computer networks spread across many different continents. It’s a fascinating story but not always an easy one to tell. In truth, the history of the internet is much more than cat5e network cables and ordering fast food with an app on your phone. Those were just the end points of a long process that essentially took the entire half of the twentieth century.
- Starting at the very beginning
So where do we start with this long and tangled story? Tangled as the wires that connect the story, actually. Nice little irony there. But still? In what decade does it actually begin? Well, if you want to get real technical, the story of the internet starts in the sixties when the United States military began to invest heavily in computers. They were a relatively new invention back then, having been somewhat strengthened and perfected by scientists working to defeat the Axis powers in World War 2. Back then, computers were immense and hulking beasts that took up entire rooms and pulsed with all sorts of weird lights and sounds. The computers we have today are only a small fraction of the size from the ones back then. Our laptops and desktops are their descendants, more or less. But these machines, huge as they were, could still do the computing work of about twenty humans at once so they were extremely useful and the United States military had long since noticed that.
Connecting the strings together
They had noticed this potential but then came a time of relatively unchecked growth and individual prosperity. The computers grew more powerful but all in their individual frames. The cat5e network cables and the ethernet ports were still decades off. Instead, we had the power of individual machines all connecting to themselves and nobody else. This process, by the way, was being repeated by several other scientific networks in Europe and Asia at the time which were all mainly used for data processing and storage. Only the United States and a few other select nations had their military eye set specifically on computers as a useful too. It was an expensive endeavor, too, so that also limited who could invest in computer networks and how fast those networks might be.
The slowly growing connection
So how did all of these separate networks grow to the point where anyone could use them? Well, it wasn’t a very fast process, that much is true. But it was a flexible one and it took several decades of cooperation between different groups. In the mid seventies, several organizations decided to test to see if they could increase their processing power and this was successful. It became a common practice into the eighties where computers, and their eventual cat5e network cables and Ethernet port descendants, became popular in business circles. It wasn’t the internet as we would come to know it, not yet anyway, but business and scientific networks gradually began to merge together to form one continuous circle. This eventually opened to the public and here we are today.