Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering

History of the Internet

The Internet was conceived in the 1960s as a tool to link university and government research centers via a nationwide network that would allow a wide variety of computers to exchange information and share resources. The engineering challenges were manifold and complex, beginning with the design of a packet switching network-a system that could make computers communicate with each other without the need for a traditional central system. Other challenges included the design of the machines, data exchange protocols, and software to run it. What eventually grew out of this endeavor is a miraculous low-cost technology that is swiftly and dramatically changing the world. It is available to people at home, in schools and universities, and in public libraries and "cyber cafes."

The Internet is not owned or controlled by any company, corporation, or nation. It connects people in 65 countries instantaneously through computers, fiber optics, satellites, and phone lines. It is changing cultural patterns, business practices, the consumer industry, and research and educational pursuits. It helps people keep up to date on world events, find a restaurant in Oregon or a cheap flight to Paris, play games, and discuss everything from apples to zoology. It has marshaled support for human rights in suppressed nations, saved the life of a child in Beijing, and helped a man in Iowa find a lost family member in Brazil.

On the heels of Sputnik and the onset of the Cold War, President Eisenhower thought it wise to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958, to keep the United States at the forefront of technology. ARPA would soon begin the research that eventually lead to the Internet. However, before ARPA began supporting networking research seriously, Leonard Kleinrock had already invented the technology of the Internet in 1962 while an Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate student. The packet switching technology he proposed was a dramatic improvement over the circuit-switched telephone network in which the entire path connecting a voice call between two parties was dedicated only to their conversation, even when they were silent. Typically, silence occupies about one-third of speech patterns, but in the transmission of data, silence can occupy as much as 99.9 percent of the data stream. Packet switching avoids this inefficiency by chopping messages into packets, and sending these packets of data independently through the network as if they are electronic letters passing through an electronic post office.

Communication links are assigned to packets, providing a highly efficient technology for sending packets over links (fiber, copper, radio) from one network node to another. These nodes are routers (or switches), which collectively share the job of directing the packets from node to node on the way to their destinations.

The selection of the routes, the management of the packet flow, and the general rules for running the network are governed by protocols that are typically implemented in software and hardware.

In 1963, JCR Licklider, head of the computer research effort at ARPA, articulated a vision of a network that would connect machines and people worldwide. In the mid-1960s, ARPA determined that it needed a network to connect together the research computers and programs it funded. Larry Roberts was brought to ARPA in 1966 to manage the program to create the packet-switched ARPAnet. This network was to form the foundation of the Internet.

A contract was let to Bolt, Beranek, and Newman in Cambridge, Mass., in January 1969 to implement the design. Supervised by Frank Heart, they designed small machines called Interface Message Processors (IMPs), specifically for packet-switching technology. A new communications protocol for packet switching was needed and they came up with the Network Control Protocol (NCP). The new network was ready for unveiling at UCLA in September 1969.

Universities and research organizations were among the first to join the network in order to exchange information. Electronic mail was introduced in 1972 by Ray Tomlinson. NCP was phased out by a new communications protocol technology-Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) which was created by Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf in 1973. It was accepted by the U.S. government in 1978, and became the de facto networking standard in 1983. More networks began to pop up in the 1980s. Educational and commercial organizations that fell outside the original charter wanted to use the same packet-switching technologies, and the system came to be known as the Internet during this period. It had far exceeded its original purpose, and was providing the impetus for a vast technological revolution that was just ahead.

Major innovations in software were necessary before the Internet could function as a global information utility. In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, proposed the World Wide Web project, and a new language for linked computers known as HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language). Simple tools to retrieve information from the Web and communicate would be the focus of much activity in the next few years. In 1991, the University of Minnesota developed "Gopher", the first successful Internet document retrieval system. In the spring of 1993, a group of graduate students at the University of Illinois computer laboratories, led by 21-year-old Marc Andreessen, created a "browser" program called Mosaic, and distributed it free. Netscape and then Microsoft followed with browsers that greatly simplified a computer user's ability to search the Internet in search of information.

Today people can search thousands of databases and libraries worldwide in several languages, browse through hundreds of millions of documents, journals, books, and computer programs, and keep up to the minute with wire-service news, sports, and weather reports. An increasing number of people shop, bank, and pay bills on the Internet. Many invest in stocks and commodities online. It's a powerful symbol of society's expectations about the future - fast-moving technology that adds convenience and efficiency to their lives.

Beyond convenience, as people consider the philosophical ramifications of the Internet, some view it as a tool of unity and democratization. In the 1960s, long before the Internet, futurist and author Sir Arthur C. Clarke predicted that by 2000 a vast electronic "global library" would be developed. Recently, a judge cited it as "the single most important advancement to freedom of speech since the writing of the Declaration of Independence." Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the global village" when he spoke of how radio and television had transformed the world in the course of the 20th century. In the 21st century, it seems the Internet is destined to have even more profound effects.

For more information on the Internet, please visit the Greatest Achievements web site.