Last updated: January 24, 2020
The History Of the World Wide Web
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Regardless of whether you grew up with computers or were introduced to them in adulthood, it is difficult now to imagine a world in which the internet does not exist.
We rely on the internet to manage our money, search for jobs, represent ourselves professionally, and keep in contact with loved ones across the country or even across the world.
We use the internet to research, to learn, and to enable ourselves to complete projects we would not know how to do without looking up instructions.
Businesses use the internet to collaborate across offices and even across the hall. Financial transactions are handled in seconds. Communication is instantaneous. Even our local and federal governments rely on the internet to manage their daily operations.
The internet itself is barely fifty years old, and the world wide web less than thirty, but if either were to disappear, modern business would all but cease. How did such an influential system come into development so quickly? It all began with a simple idea from J. C. R. Licklider.
Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist, put out the idea in 1960 of a network of computers connected together by "wide-band communication lines" through which they could share data and information storage.
Licklider was hired as the head of computer research by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and his small idea took off.
By 1966, MIT researcher Lawrence G Roberts had developed a plan for "ARPANET", a computer network designed to withstand power outages, even if a few of the computers were inactive.
The first ARPANET link was made on October 29, 1969, between the University of California and the Stanford Research Institute. Only two letters were sent before the system crashed, but that was all the encouragement the computer researchers needed.
More universities and hosts were added to ARPANET as the system stabilized, and by 1981, there were over 200 hosts on the system.
A number of other computer networks sprung up in the wake of ARPANET, including the Merit Network, CYCLADES, and the first international packet network, IPSS. However, with so many differing systems, something had to be developed to integrate them all into one.
Robert Kahn of DARPA and Vinton Cerf of Stanford University worked together on a solution, and in 1977, the internet protocol suite was used to seamlessly link three different networks.
Using this new protocol for data transmission, the National Science Foundation created NSFNET in 1986, capable of handling 1.5 megabits per second, which replaced the now-outdated ARPANET.
The World Wide Web
The world wide web, or WWW, was created as a method to navigate the now extensive system of connected computers. Tim Berners-Lee, a contractor with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), developed a rudimentary hypertext program called ENQUIRE.
The program was designed to make information readily available to users, and to allow a user to explore relationships between different pages (ie, clicking to get to a different section of a website).
By 1990, with the help of Robert Cailliau, Berners-Lee developed the skeletal outline of the internet, including a web browser and web server.
Unfortunately, the world wasn't ready for his ideas. The web was still a series of simple text pages, difficult to navigate, and inaccessible to most people.
But all that changed in 1993, with the release of the Mosaic web browser, which allowed users to explore multimedia online. 1993 also saw the introduction of the first modern search engines.
Though early search engines were primitive, mostly manual, and primarily indexed only titles and headers, in 1994 WebCrawler began to "crawl" the net, indexing entire pages of active websites.
This technology opened the door for more powerful search engines, and made it possible to easily search through vast amounts of connected information.
In this same year, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to help further develop ease of use and accessibility of the web, and made it a standard that the web should be available to the public for free and with no patent.
The aptly named dot-com boom of 1999 saw many people move their businesses online, such as newspapers, retailers, and entertainment offices.
In those early days, websites traditionally created and published their own information, which was simply viewed by site visitors, with little to no interaction between creators and users.
A big push in the late 1990s was away from Usenet newsgroups and toward applications like Yahoo Clubs, which eventually became Yahoo Groups. In fact, in 2001, Google acquired the Usenet archive and made it the basis for its own Google Groups.
As the web continued to grow, users began to demand more interaction from the sites they visited, and the result — typically referred to as Web 2.0 — was a more social internet.
Web 2.0 is characterized by interactive websites, social knowledge sharing, user-generated content, online collaboration, embedded applications and multimedia, mobile connections, and — of course — social media.
It is a web in which site owners and their audience interacts continuously, average users can become content providers, and visitors are able to create a unique, personal internet experience.
The Mobile Web
Around the same time as the internet was making the transition to Web 2.0, the world wide web also began to see a shift away from stationary desktops and bulky laptops, as more users began to access online content via their mobile phones.
Early web-enabled phones had tiny screens, weak processors, and connected via slow wireless connections. As a result, viewing traditional web pages was a frustrating experience. However, as millions of smartphones started selling each year, the internet quickly adapted for mobile users.
Initially most websites accomplished this by creating an entirely separate site for their mobile audience. These sites used fewer graphics and a simplified text layout to improve transmissions speeds and readability.
Over the next decade, however, mobile use continued to grow, mobile devices became more powerful, and mobile networks faster. Mobile website became capable of the same multimedia experience as traditional websites, and maintaining multiple sites became inefficient.
Most website administrators have given up the separate site model, in favor of adaptive websites that adjust their layout based on the type of device being used or the screen size.
At the same time, as smartphones and tablets became the dominant mobile technology, many websites also began to offer similar features and content via mobile apps, which allowed them to take advantage of features specific to mobile devices and connect to users with real-time notifications.
With annual smartphone sales now in the billions, and the majority of web browsing now being done on mobile devices, it is rare to find a site the is not mobile compatible; and soon, such sites will be completely obsolete.
From its very beginning, the world wide web was seen as a social construct, connecting communities of scientist and researchers from all over the world. The more the system grew, the more connected the community became.
In 1996, that connectivity took a huge leap forward with the introduction of ICQ, a free instant messaging application. Suddenly, internet users could communicate across any distance in real time.
The following year AOL released its own Instant Message program, AIM, popularizing the new technology. 1997 also saw the introduction of the world's first blogs.
During this time, companies also began experimenting with specialized social networks, like Classmates.com, where users who already had an existing connection could reunite and communicate online.
Then in 2002, Friendster introduced the world to social networking as we know it today, an online community designed to not only communicate with friends you already have, but to build new relationships through common friends and interests.
In 2003, MySpace and LinkedIn joined the social networking arena. Targeted primarily at young adults with its flashy customizations, music integration, and built-in blogging, MySpace popularized social media to millions of users.
Taking a very different approach, LinkedIn targeted the business community, aiming to recreate the after-hours networking environment online. To this day, it remains the world's most popular professional networking site.
Three years later, the world of social media was forever changed with the public release of Facebook.
Though it was launched in 2004, the site was restricted to college campuses for the first two years. After going public, the site quickly grew to hundreds of millions of users, and today it boasts over 1.5 billion active users each month.
The success of these early pioneers paved the way for new social media outlets such as Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
Combined with the power of mobile, social networks have also become services, like Uber and Airbnb, allowing users to provide services traditionally only available through large business directly to one another.
The Internet of Things
The idea of connecting devices to the internet in order to control them from afar is nothing new, but as internet connections grow faster, connectivity technology becomes smaller.
And the mobile world allows us to stay constantly connected, controlling things beyond just our computers has become the next logical step in the evolution of the web.
From dimming the lights in our living room to setting the DVR to starting our cars, the internet allows us to control everyday appliances from across the room or on the other side of the country.
And as the Internet of Things continues to grow, this connection has become a two-way communication. Our devices can now contact us, letting us know when our car needs maintenance, alerting us when the room temperature gets too low, and even telling us when we're out of milk.
Internet connected devices have become widespread, and the movement is only in its infancy. In the coming years, more and more of the devices we interact with every day will be just as connected to the world wide web as we are.
The invention of the internet was a large change for the world to adapt to. It has changed everything from business communications to social interactions, and as new technologies are introduced it will continue to change the way we live and work.
It is a safe bet that there are many more fascinating innovations for it in our future.
How has your internet usage changed over the years?
The way you communicate and share information has changed. Considering that over three million email messages are sent every second. Estimates indicate that the average office worker spends roughly 30% of their time on email, so it's become a huge part of your workday.
When you aren't working (and sometimes when you are), you probably use social media to communicate with your friend and contribute to the seven billion social media shares that happen every day.
Whether you're looking for a recipe, the lyrics to that song you just heard, or a local Thai restaurant, it's the internet you turn to for help.
For many of us, the way we unwind at the end of the day is powered by the internet. The rapid rise of streaming video over the internet has the cable networks scrambling.
The internet has come a long way. And at less than 50 years old, the digital revolution is just getting started. Looking back at how far we've come makes us ask: what will the internet look like in another 50 years?
The development of the internet was and is a multifaceted endeavor, with many different contributors and companies developing small segments that together added up to what the online world is today.
For more extensive information on how the internet became what it is, please feel free to explore the following links.
- History of the Internet by Decade
- Origins of the Internet
- An Early History of the Internet (PDF)
- Brief History of the Internet
- NSF and the Birth of the Internet: The 1960s
- Internet Pioneers
- History of the Internet and the Colleges that Built It
- The Internet: How it All Began (PDF)
- The Past and Future History of the Internet (PDF)
- A Lecture on the Origin of the Internet by Ken King
- Historical Timeline of the World Wide Web
- The Birth of the World Wide Web
- A Little History of the World Wide Web (PDF)
- Interactive Timeline of the History of the World Wide Web
- The History of the Internet According to Itself
- Invention of the Internet
- CERN WWW Research
- CERN and the Invention of the World Wide Web.
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- The Internet: Then and Now: our infographic on just how much the internet and our lives have changed over the past few decades. Or you could watch our short video based on it.
- The History of Web Search Engines: learn how we moved from simple search engines that were often far to trusting to those we use today that are largely trustworthy.
- Eight Computer Viruses That Brought the Internet to Its Knees: almost as soon as the internet became popular, it became a major target for hackers. This infographic takes an in-depth look at eight major attacks.
- Six Organizations That Secretly Run The Internet: although it sounds like a conspiracy, these organizations are all critically important to keeping the internet running. Find out more in this fascinating infographic.
- Programming: Languages, Timeline and Guides: from the Jaquard loom in 1801 to the publication of HTML5 in 2014 and beyond, you can learn all about the history of programming (And how to do it!) with this exhaustive guide.