Tuesday 23rd Jan 2018

Who invented the Internet?

Who invented the internet Lovelace and Babbage
Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine

Who invented the Internet?  Was it Al Gore?  Was it Tim Berners-Lee?

Why is the Internet so difficult to govern? Is it something to do the fundamental architecture which the Internet developed?

How is the Internet affecting our lives?

Like the development of the printing press, the Internet has revolutionised the way that people can access information. By trying to find out who invented the Internet, and the challenges that those scientists were trying to overcome, we can have a greater understanding of the difficulties that lawmakers face when trying to regulate activity and information sharing online.

We are in the midst of a revolution in the way that we communicate.  The author John Naughton advises us to “take the long view”, likening the Internet to the development of the printing press – a technological revolution which continued to change attitudes, power structures, and behaviour many hundreds of years after it was first introduced.

Who invented the Internet: a brief history

Here’s a highly selective and incomplete view of who invented the Internet, looking at key contributions made by individuals.  When you look for the origins of a technology or a movement (think, Renaissance, Reformation), you end up a lot further back in history that you expect.

Do we start with Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, 19th century eccentrics who set out to make a machine that would help them pick winners in horse races?  Ada, as well as being a mathematical genius, was the daughter of Lord Byron (mad, bad and dangerous to know – as described by one of his friends). Lovelace and Babbage’s quest to win big on the horses was unsuccessful, but in the process they described the first programmable computer (Babbage’s analytical engine).

Or do we go back even further, to George Boole, whose “true/false” logic is the basis of much of modern computing?Or to the punchcards used in Jacquard‘s looms, which were invented in 1804 to enable patterns to be woven into fabric?

Who invented the internet early pioneers
Early computers, and early Internet pioneers: (clockwise from top left) Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider and Norbert Weiner

You have to draw the line somewhere. In the 1940s and ’50s, three US scientists, Vannevar Bush, Norbert Weiner and JCR Licklider are credited with being the scientists who invented the Internet. Although they did not succeed in creating networked computer systems, they made many of the advances which paved the way for modern computing. Bush’s Differential Analyser enabled complex equations to be solved, and his Memex provided a conceptual basis for information storage and retrieval. Weiner, who coined the term “cybernetics” understood the potential of computers to transform human capabilities, and the central importance of feedback. Licklider made advances in interactive computing: enabling the shift from batch processing of early computers towards ‘time-sharing’ (so that many people could use a valuable computer at the same time).

Things really started to advance after the launch of Sputnik. According to John Naughton (A Brief History of the Future), the Americans were so rattled by Russian success in launching a spacecraft that the US government invested heavily in the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).  For many, it was the ARPA who invented the Internet.  It was a crucible for many developments (including the

sputnik, who invented the internet
Was it Sputnik who invented the Internet? Indirectly, yes.

mouse), but its most lasting impact was the thinking from which the Internet developed.  Early work focused on how to get computers – which in those days were bespoke, expensive, and incompatible with each other – to connect together without causing them harm. But not all of the work took place within the ARPA.  Paul Baran (working for the RAND corporation) is credited with the concept of the distributed network, with no overall control, in which each node passes on fragments of messages like “hot potatoes”.  Donald Davies’ (from the UK) breakthrough was packet switching, the idea of breaking up all messages into small pieces of exactly the same size, comprising data (the message) and a header (metadata) about the origin of the message, its destination and recipient. Without these essential steps, the Internet would not have been possible. It was Baran and Davies who invented the Internet’s key concepts.

Who invented the internet Vint Cerf Steve Crocker Jon Postel
The men who invented TCP/IP, the protocol which enables the transfer of data across computer networks. (From left) Jon Postel, Steve Crocker, Vint Cerf

For many, if they are asked who invented the Internet, they will reply Vint Cerf, Steve Crocker and Jon Postel. These three graduate students first started working together in the late 1960s within the ARPA project. They invented the TCP/IP, the protocol which enables Internet routing. They also began the tradition of creating Internet standards as “Requests for Comment”.  John Naughton comments “It wasn’t just the title that endured, however, but the intelligent, friendly, co-operative, consensual attitude implied by it.” As the internetworking project took hold, others began to recognise that it had some essential features:

  • No centralised control
  • Not optimized for a single application
  • The network is dumb, with the intelligence at the edges (the end to end principle)
  • The trusting network.
Tim Berners Lee who invented the internet
Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the world wide web

It was British scientist Tim Berners Lee who invented the Internet’s world wide web. Berners-Lee was a graduate student at CERN in the early 1990s, more than twenty years after Cerf, Crocker and Postel made their breakthrough: “I needed something to organise myself”. So he created a system of linking to other documents and resources, and gave it away to humankind.

Why the Internet is different

So the answer to the question “Who invented the Internet?” is “Lots of people”.  They didn’t all work in the same century, or in the same place, but the work of many pioneers made today’s Internet possible.

As the Internet has developed, it has created tensions with usual national laws, and its governing system has to be different, because of the way it was developed.

Unlike traditional media, there are no state licensing systems in most European and US countries. The lack of central control has led to an explosion of innovation.

At first, there was little need for inbuilt security systems, as the primary purpose of networks was to make data transport as easy as possible. The anonymity the Internet offers can allow individuals to hide their identity for legitimate reasons, but this also makes the enforcement of intellectual property rights difficult.

The Internet is international by nature, so unlike offline laws, control over the Internet cannot stop at national or regional borders. Courts are encountering problems, as they are finding that rather than no laws applying to the Internet, many national laws are applied at the same time.

Naughton compares the Internet to a bee. It should not be able to fly, but it somehow does. Huge information sharing networks, such as Wikipedia, should be expected to fail, and yet it is as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Who invented the Internet matters less than how it will develop in future, and how it is already impacting our lives, society, and laws.

Resources and References (Who invented the Internet?)

Goldsmith, Jack. Wu, Tim., Who Controls the Internet?, Oxford University Press, New York, 2006

Murray, Andrew., Information Technology Law, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010.

Naughton, John., A Brief History of the Future, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Great Britain, 1999.

Naughton, John., From Gutenburg to Zuckerburg, Quercus, Great Britain, 2012

Wu, Tim., The Master Switch, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2010.

Zittrain, Jonathan., The Future of the Internet and how to stop it, Yale University Press, USA, 2008.


This article is adapted from Emily Taylor’s Internet Law and Governance course