July 24, 2024


Sapiens Digital

From Research to Memes: A Brief History of the Internet

9 min read

How old is the internet? At the moment of you writing this article, the internet is about 13,500 days old, or approximately 37 years old. Though there are many disputes and technicalities that can cause this number to fluctuate, but if you were to take TCP/IP’s conception in the year 1983 as your starting point, the internet is about this old.

What is TCP/IP? Don’t worry, we will get to that later. Since its inception, the internet has become a central part of many lives. From memes to movies, information to disinformation, message boards to social media, the internet is arguably one of the most impactful inventions in human history, shaping cultures, politics, entertainment, business, and economics.

Unlike other prominent inventions that you may come across while exploring Interesting Engineering, there is no single inventor for the internet. Instead, it has developed over the years thanks to the work of countless scientists, researchers, government agencies, entrepreneurs, and individuals.

However, have you ever wondered how the internet has spread across the world? Or why? Or how many people are using the internet right now? And, when will every person across the world will gain internet access? All valid questions; and we will be sure to explore them all today. Let’s start with some of the easier questions. 

In 2019, it was estimated that there were about 4.4 billion users online

From Scientific Research to Memes: A Brief History of the Internet
Source: Memebase

That is up quite a bit from 2018, where online estimates of users were floating around 3 billion users, or in 2015 when 2 billion people were said to be online. Continuing on this upward trend, the minds at Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that there will be 6 billion Internet users by 2022.

According to the same source, over 90% of the global population could be on the web by 2030. However, at the moment, there are still a few billion people off the web, with internet usage varying within each country. For example, in a place like the United States, 84% of the population is connected, compared to Indonesia, where 36% of the population is connected.

According to the World Economic Forum, availability and affordability are two leading factors standing in the way of widespread adoption of the internet in countries lacking the infrastructure.

Nonetheless, major tech companies like Google and SpaceX are working to bring the internet to all. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we talk about the future of the internet, we need to review its history. 

The Cold War led to the innovations needed to create the internet

Like many great technological achievements, including space travel, the innovations needed to create the internet were born out of Cold War paranoia. For the uninitiated, the Cold War was a period of competition, tension, and conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that began after World War Two. One of the major turning points during the Cold War was October 4, 1957. On this day, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first human-made satellite. The beach ball-sized satellite forced many Americans to rethink the importance of science and technology, including government officials in the United States.

Shortly after, we saw the formation of new agencies dedicated to science and technology. These agencies included the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The innovations from these two agencies would lay the framework for some of the most historic inventions in history, including the creation of the internet. It can all be said to have started with the ARPAnet. 

ARPAnet’s “Galactic Network” was the start of it all 

From Scientific Research to Memes: A Brief History of the Internet
ARPAnet in 1974 Source: Yngwar/Wikimedia

One question for defense departments at the time was, “In the event of an attack from the Soviet Union, if the nation’s telephone systems were taken down, how would defense leaders be able to communicate with each other during this time of crisis?” This question was in the front of the minds of leading officials in the United States. They feared that one missile would be enough to make long-distance communication extremely difficult. This problem planted the seeds needed to spur the creation of the ARPAnet.

In 1962, a scientist from MIT and ARPA named J.C.R. Licklider proposed a potential solution, which he called the Galactic Network. Unfortunately, this is not an intergalactic alliance of different space colonies. His idea was a little more down to earth.

This “galactic network” would allow computers to talk to each other, which could be the perfect alternative even if the Soviets found a way to destroy the telephone system. However, it was not until 1965 the ARPAnet would start making its way into existence.

This is due in part to the development of the process of packet switching, a way of sending information from one
computer to another, by another MIT scientist. At the most basic level, packet switching breaks down data into blocks, or packets, before sending it to its destination. Each packet is able to take its own route from computer to computer. Packet switching made the government’s ARPAnet possible. 

The first message sent on the ARPAnet caused the receiving computer to crash. 

In 1969, researchers decided to give their new ARPAnet a try, sending a message between two computers, one based in UCLA and another at Stanford University. Mind you, each of these computers was about the size of a small house. So what did they send to each other? “Hello, how are you”? “What’s up”? “Bro, check out my cat.” Nope. The first message was “LOGIN” from UCLA to Stanford, promptly causing the Stanford computer to shut down and crash.

The Stanford computer did, however, receive the first two letters. Regardless, researchers alongside ARPA continued to expand their network of computers into the 1970s, with packet-switched computer networks popping up around the world, getting us closer to the creation of the Internet as we know it. But we were still very far from it, as it was increasingly hard to connect computers across the globe in a virtual space. That was until Vinton Cerf stepped into the chat.

Cerf has a distinguished resume, working on the Apollo program, Rocketdyne, and on F1 engines. He solved the connection problem by creating a method for all of the computers on all of the world’s mini-network to communicate with one another. This invention would go on to be called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol or TCP/ICP. 

The first email was sent in 1971 

Did you know that 60% of emails sent across the world are considered spam? Before email was used for marketing purposes and staying in touch with your grandma, it was nothing too spectacular. The first email ever sent was sent by Ray Tomlinson to himself in 1971. Tomilson started his career at BBN Technologies, the United States Defence Department’s company, to build ARPAnet.

However, no one asked Tomilson to create email. It was a side project. Researchers were already sending messages to each other’s computers at this point. However, Tomlison wanted to create digital mailboxes that allowed people to file, forward, and respond to messages easily.

The World Wide Web started to take shape in the 1980 and 1990s 

The 1980s gave birth to many of our favorite inventions, including the World Wide Web. Thanks to Cerf’s invention, the world started to become smaller, transforming our secluded groups of computers across the globe into a worldwide network.

Still, throughout the 1980s, this precursor to the internet was primarily used by scientists and researchers for sharing files and data. No dank memes and 9gag yet. However, the idea of who should have access to the internet and how it should be used began to change dramatically.

In 1989, while working at CERN, Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the first Internet browser. He also began work on the fundamental technologies that would eventually make up the world wide web — HTML, URI, and HTTP.

Thanks to Berners-Lee’s decision to make his codes available royalty-free, the World wide web became not just a tool for sending or receiving information but a web of information itself that anyone with a computer can access and retrieve. 

In 1992 a more user-friendly way to search the web called Mosaic was born. Eventually called Netscape, this browser made the internet much more accessible to the everyday user. After Congress opened the web to companies in 1992, the flood gates were broken, and the modern internet was born. 

Who was the first e-commerce website on the internet? 

Amazon would have you believe that it was the first e-commerce website on the internet. However, NetMarket claims that they completed the first secure retail transaction on August 11, 1994. To make the debate even more confusing, the Internet Shopping Network says that they sold an item even earlier. Nonetheless, e-commerce is a massive business on the internet. There is a very good chance that you are going to order most of your gifts online during the holiday season. At the moment, there are an estimated 12-24 million e-commerce websites globally. What have you ordered today? 

Like it or not, social media changed the world

From Scientific Research to Memes: A Brief History of the Internet
Source: Quickmeme

Yes, social media is flooded with negativity, controversy, and questionable ads. Nonetheless, social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit have gone on to inspire a lot of good in the world, connecting hundreds of millions of people. As of 2019, there are an estimated 3.75 billion people on social media, with people having an average of 7.6 social media accounts. How much does the average person spend on social media? About 142 minutes a day. There are probably a few people who are way above this average. 

There are a lot of people around the world who are still not on the internet

Though the internet is an essential part of daily life for people around the world, there is a large majority that have poor connections, censored connections, or no internet connection whatsoever. In countries like Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, 91%, 84%, 95% of the population, respectively, have access to the internet. While in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Somalia, less than 10% of the population have access to the internet.

Censorship and lack of infrastructure are two leading factors for these low percentages. According to the World Economic Forum, countries like India, China, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Egypt have the most
disconnected people per capita. Interestingly, while India tops the list, the country also has the second-largest online market globally. At the other end of the spectrum, countries found in Central Africa, Southern Asia, Northern Africa, and Western Asia are all experiencing massive spikes in internet use. 

Farmers are missing out on the digital revolution 

Hundreds of millions of farmers are still not online, which is interesting, as farmers in both developing and developed nations directly impact a country’s citizens. Why? In the published paper, The global divide in data-driven farming, researchers explain that a “lack of devices or a combination of nonexistent outdated network coverage is causing farmers to miss out on revolutionary data-driven agricultural technologies that could help them better manage their farms. According to the team, in one example, “across Mexico, Latin America’s second-largest economy, virtually everyone has a cell phone, but only 25% of farming households have internet access.”

There are companies out there trying to get the internet everywhere

From Scientific Research to Memes: A Brief History of the Internet
“60 Starlink satellites stacked together before deployment on 24 May 2019.” Source: Starlink/Wikimedia

Bringing the availability and affordability of the internet to more people around the world is going to take the collective efforts of private industry, governments, nonprofits, and citizen-led initiatives. There are some companies out there, taking some impressive and controversial steps to give the internet to everyone. Today, we are going to focus on two; Loon and Starlink. 

A service provided by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Starlink, has the ambitious goal of giving everyone internet access no matter where they might live. To do so Musk, Starlink hopes to launch thousands of small satellites, all of which will be in low Earth orbit.

From Scientific Research to Memes: A Brief History of the Internet
Source: Loon

They will be able to transmit fast internet signals down to earth. In contrast, Loon is a network of stratospheric balloons designed to bring Internet connectivity to rural and remote communities worldwide, originally started by Google. 

Both projects plan to come to fruition in the next three years and promise high-speed internet connections. But, can you count on it? It will be interesting to see how the internet continues to evolve and shape our world. Hopefully, there will be less disinformation and more cute animal memes. 

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