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The Internet — From Geeks to Everyone (Next, Everything)

29 Oct 2015 by Teresa Meek

If you had to guess, when would you say the first electronic message was sent?

In the early 1990s, as the World Wide Web was getting underway?

Perhaps earlier, in the 1980s?

Nope — the first electronic message actually dates all the way back to 1969, the same year Neil Armstrong took one giant step on the moon.

Though the electronic message was considerably less thrilling than the moon landing, and almost no one knew of it at the time, you could argue that its impact has been greater.

It consisted of just two letters. On Oct. 29, 1969 — now celebrated as Internet Day — a UCLA computer science graduate student attempted to send the message “LOGIN” letter by letter to scientists at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Computers on both ends were the size of small houses. He successfully sent the “L” and the “O” before the connection crashed, demonstrating both the triumphs and the frustrations of what would later become the Internet.

A Cold War creation

But the story behind the Internet really dates back to the Cold War of the 1950s and early 1960s. The government was worried that a Soviet missile attack could take down the country’s phone network, making long-distance communication impossible. In 1962, J.C.R. Licklider, an MIT scientist working with DARPA, proposed the idea of an “Intergalactic Computer Network” of machines that could talk to one another, allowing government leaders to communicate during an emergency. The system eventually became ARPANET, the system used to send the LOGIN message. But there was still a missing piece.

In 1965, another MIT scientist created a system called “packet switching,” which breaks data into blocks that are sent to other computers along different routes. Breaking up data and sending it on different paths gave the system more security.

Bulletin boards for hobbyists

In 1978, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess launched a dial-up system called the Bulletin Board System, or BBS, which used phone lines to log into computers and post messages — kind of like community bulletin boards commonly used in schools, churches and grocery stores. Like the physical bulletin boards, BBS systems were mainly used locally, because users didn’t want to incur long-distance phone bills. They had a small but avid following of hobbyists, geeks and Dungeons & Dragons players.

The early Internet

The Internet as we know it today — with websites and email — was developed courtesy of British scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who created Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) in the late 1980s and started the World Wide Web project in 1991.

Sales became one of the first uses of the Internet, but the public didn’t pay much attention until the introduction of Windows 95 and the Internet Explorer browser. Five years later, more than half of U.S. homes had a personal computer.

Still, the early Internet was a desert compared with today. Company websites were basically brochures, with no interactive capability. Email and chat rooms were where the action was, but dial-up connections were slow and unreliable, and users grew accustomed to hearing a digital voice from the major provider, America Online, saying, “Goodbye, Goodbye,” as it knocked them off.

A 19-hour AOL system failure in 1996 caused national outrage and revealed how important the Internet had become.

The Internet remained a geeky place in the 1990s and early 2000s, with incomprehensible error messages that led to a widely circulated haiku version. Until effective filters were developed, users were plagued by spam (the term caught on from an early Monty Python skit).

Social media and beyond

Over the years, those problems were solved, and the technology behind websites became increasingly easy for ordinary users to work with, leading to a proliferation of blogs and sites like Yelp, which give consumers a new voice.

The next big step was social media. LinkedIn was launched in 2002, though it was slow to attract users. Facebook, which came along in 2004, spread like wildfire and was followed by Twitter in 2006.

The Internet and social media changed the landscape of news, providing instant results and allowing readers to talk back in ways not possible through print or television.

Today, the Internet reaches into every corner of our lives, and it’s hard to imagine a world without it.

The next transformation is likely to be the Internet of Things, which is already using cloud computing to interact with consumers through sensors embedded in thermostats and medical devices, and may soon be everywhere.