We take the internet for granted. Never before in human history has the world been so connected and information so easily accessible. How did the internet get started? Read to learn more!
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Discover the history of the internet for kids
Before the World Wide Web (pre 1990s)
Before we begin, it’s important to know the difference between “the internet” and “the world wide web.” Internet refers to a network of connected computers that exchange digital information. The world wide web is the system built on top of the internet that enables the sharing of graphic websites. Transferring files between computers and email is part of the internet but websites on the world wide web make it easier to perform these activities.
- Early beginnings: The internet started as a US military project. During the height of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, the US government was afraid that if one computer center was destroyed then all the data at that center would be lost forever. They wanted a way to share data across computers in different geographies. In 1969, ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, launched. The Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsors research and development at universities for the US government and military. ARPANET started off as a connection between computers at Stanford University and UCLA. The very first message sent between computers was “LO” from UCLA to Stanford. The message was supposed to be “LOGIN” but the network crashed before sending the “G”! Starting in the 1970s, computers all across the country and world connected to ARPANET.
- Email: The first email was sent in 1971. Email was originally meant to send messages between users on ARPANET. Before email, messages could be sent between computers but each computer had its own mailbox and was specific to that computer. Email addresses were still formatted with user@location. The very first email contained the message “QWERTYIOP”, the top row of the keyboard.
- The first computer virus: In addition to email, the first computer virus started around this time. A computer virus is a program that spreads among computers without the user knowing. Computer viruses are usually dangerous because it could lead to computers sending sensitive information to others but the first computer virus, “Creeper”, only displayed a “CATCH ME IF YOU CAN” message on the screen. One can learn more about staying safe on the internet with Create & Learn’s Junior Hackers course!
- TCP/IP: TCP/IP, the “Internet Protocol Suite”, was invented in 1973 and became the ARPANET standard in 1983. TCP/IP is the format for which internet data packets are transmitted. Before TCP/IP, different computers had different formats for internet messages. Part of TCP/IP are IP addresses, a string of numbers that identifies a computer on the internet. TCP/IP is still the standard today.
- Dial-up internet: In 1982 connecting to the internet using telephone cables was invented (“dial up internet”). Before 1982, computers used custom wires or satellite connections to connect to each other. Up until the early 2000s, connecting a computer to the phone land line was the main way people connected to the internet. While dial up internet made it easy to connect to other computers, it had a maximum speed of 56 kb per second, meaning it would take almost an hour to download the average 3 minute 3 MB mp3 song! Also, people couldn’t use their phone while using the internet!
- Domain names: In 1985, the first domain name was registered. Domain names are the .com, .edu, .org, etc. extension in a website name. Domain names made it easier to identify computers on ARPANET. The first domain name registered was symbolics.com, a website for what was at the time a computer parts manufacturer. Today the website commemorates the first domain name.
- The end of ARPANET: In 1990 ARPANET was shut down in favor of the newer, faster, and more modern NSFNET, NSF standing for “National Science Foundation,” still a US government agency. Later on in 1995, the infrastructure of the internet was no longer the responsibility of the government and became corporate.
The World Wide Web (1990s - today)
- The start of the World Wide Web and HTML: Starting 1989, Tim Berners Lee, a British scientist working at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), began working on a way to organize documents on the internet that connected to each other by clicking on “links.” These documents would be written in HTML, Hypertext Markup Language. HTML tells a computer how a web page should look like but is not considered a programming language. This was the very start of the world wide web.
- Videoconferencing: The first webcam was invented in 1991 at Cambridge University. The webcam recorded a 129 x 129 pixel black and white image at one image per second. From here, videoconferencing technology immensely improved. Skype, the first major videoconferencing platform, started in 2003 and bought by Microsoft in 2011. In terms of other notable videoconferencing platforms that are popular today, Zoom was founded in 2011 and FaceTime first started in 2013.
- Web browsers: In 1993, the MOSAIC web browser was first introduced by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A web browser is a graphic program that interprets pages on the world wide web. As the world wide web grew, so did MOSAIC. Companies began to customize the MOSAIC code to create other web browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer. Netscape eventually became Firefox in 2002. Apple created Safari in 2003 and Google launched Chrome in 2008.
- Streaming: The first live video stream was in 1993 broadcasting a garage rock band. In 1995, streaming would become more mainstream as ESPN streamed a radio broadcast of a baseball game. Streaming was still limited since internet speeds were very slow. Streaming video took off with the start of YouTube in 2005 (Google then bought it in 2006). Also in 2006, Justin.tv (now Twitch) started and Twitch remains the top live streaming platform (Amazon bought Twitch in 2014). Netflix, which began as a website to order DVDs in the mail, started its streaming service in 2007. Hulu also started in 2007. Later on, Amazon Prime Video started in 2016 and Disney+ in 2019.
- Dot com boom: In the late 1990s as the world wide web boomed in popularity so did many new companies, causing what was called the “dot com boom.” The world wide web was the wild west and countless companies tried to solidify themselves as the leader in a certain internet service early on. During this time, major companies such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, and eBay started and remain popular today. Other websites such as Yahoo, AOL, and Ask Jeeves were also big at this time but aren’t relevant anymore.
- Social media: One of those websites that rose and fell during the dot com boom was SixDegrees, often considered the first social media website. It started in 1997 but shut down in 2000 with a peak of 3.5 million users but was revived in 2001. The next major social media platform was MySpace. It started in 2003 and at its peak in 2008 had 115 million users. However, by 2009 Facebook overtook MySpace with its safer reputation and more reliable service. In terms of other popular social media sites, Twitter started in 2006, Instagram started in 2010 then bought by Facebook in 2012, and Snapchat started in 2011.
- Internet on mobile devices: As covered in Create & Learn’s History of Cell Phones article, the first phone to be able to connect with the internet was the Nokia 9000 in 1996. Since then, smartphones and the rise of 4G and 5G have made it easier to use the internet on a phone. Most mobile apps connect to the internet. Learn more about mobile app development with Create & Learn’s Mobile Coding for Apps and Games course!
- Cloud Computing: One of the early challenges with starting a website was setting up the servers. Many websites failed because they grew too fast. A company may only buy enough servers for a couple thousand users but it then grows to millions of users. Cloud computing enables users to create servers on demand. Amazon Web Services started in 2006 and remains the leader in cloud computing today. One can learn more about cloud computing through Create & Learn’s Cloud Computing for Web Apps course!
Explore the History of the Internet for Kids
What one can build with the internet is only limited by one’s imagination. The internet is the future and you should be a part of it! Create your own websites with our live online Build Your Web course! Learn cybersecurity with Create & Learn’s Junior Hackers course. Or explore cloud computing with Create & Learn’s Cloud Computing for Web Apps course. With these skills, you could be behind the next YouTube or Instagram!
Written by Brandon Lim, a Create & Learn instructor and curriculum developer. Brandon also works full-time as a software engineer and holds a BS in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University. Brandon has experience teaching coding to students of all ages from elementary school to college and is excited to share his deep knowledge and relentless passion for coding with the next generation of technology leaders.