The Internet at 50: Four steps to transforming the digital world
Fifty years ago, computers at UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute were linked in an experiment that later would be described as the birth of the internet. Yet, as explained by Harlan Lebo, author of 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America (Amazon, Barnes & Noble), key advances would be vital to transform that infant technology into the dominant communication technology we use today.
“I don’t feel like a father of anything. It’s not how I think of myself. Every now and again, I think, ‘you know what? I invented the search engine.” – Alan Emtage, developer of “Archie,” the first search engine
The internet may have been “born” in October 1969, but it then percolated for years as complex, near-impenetrable masses of data stored in computers around the world. The information was accessible only to scientists and government agencies who knew precisely how and where to look. Online technology would evolve for more than two decades before it would become practical for everyone to use. Four key developments in particular would make that transformation possible.
In March 1983, Paul Mockapetris, a computer engineer at the University of Southern California, proposed a new system for managing online content that would eliminate the confusion in how digital information is identified.
Mockapetris proposed a structure that labeled information using what he called a Domain Name System, or DNS. The name for each domain (soon to be known as websites) would be followed by an “extension” that described the type of organization: for instance, private companies were identified with “.com” (such as nytimes.com for The New York Times), or “.gov” for government organizations (nasa.gov), or “.edu” for schools (harvard.edu).
Many extensions would be created in the next three decades – some of them abbreviations (such as .net,” “.cc,” or “.co,”) and others full words (everything from “.gold” to “.attorney” to “.party.”) – and continue to be developed.
By using domain names, identifying a website became much clearer and vastly simplified how the internet could be understood and accessed. The first domain name for a company – symbolics.com – was established in March 1985; the site still exists today.
Like many other internet innovators, Mockapetris chose to develop his system without charge; he earned nothing from a development that would affect every one of the billions of websites worldwide. Later, Mockapetris would joke about his decision.
"A friend of mine said I was smart enough to invent the DNS,” he said, “but not smart enough to own it.”
In the hallway of Building 1 on the French-Swiss border where Tim Berners-Lee worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research – better known as CERN – the plaque on the wall begins with large black engraved letters: “Where the Web was Born.”
In 1991, Berners-Lee was at CERN as a software consultant, and he felt stymied by the limited abilities of computers to share information.
“I found it frustrating that in those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it,” Berners-Lee recalled. “Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer.”
"Can't we convert every information system,” Berners-Lee proposed, “so that it looks like part of some imaginary information system which everyone can read?"
From that frustration grew Berners-Lee’s interest in developing a method that would standardize how information could be shared by computers online.
In March 1989, Berners-Lee collaborated with Robert Cailliau on a project that merged a recipe of earlier developments into a to create a new way for users to access information online.
“Most of the technology involved in the web, like hypertext, had been designed already,” Berners-Lee said. “I just had to put them together. It was... going to a higher level of abstraction.”
What Berners-Lee described as “a higher level of abstraction” was an inspired innovation that would transform how information could be stored and accessed online. Berners-Lee, working with Cailliau, had invented the World Wide Web.
Cailliau named their innovation during discussions in the CERN cafeteria.
“Tim and I (tried) to find a catching name for the system,” Cailliau recalled. “I was determined that the name should not be taken from Greek mythology. Tim proposed "World Wide Web." I liked this very much, except that it is difficult to pronounce in French.”
By May 1991, CERN released the software for the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee created the first-ever “website” at CERN. Unveiled in August 1991, the website, in plain text with no formatting or design, provides basic information about the World Wide Web project (A duplicate of the original website is still posted here). The World Wide Web was opened to everyone.
In April 1993, CERN took the step that assured the thriving of the World Wide Web and released the software into the public domain.
Recalled Berners-Lee: “CERN's decision to make the Web foundations and protocols available…royalty free, and without additional impediments, was crucial to the Web's existence. Without this commitment, the enormous individual and corporate investment in Web technology simply would never have happened, and we wouldn't have the Web today."
Before the work of Berners-Lee and Cailliau on the World Wide Web transformed the internet into a functional global system for all to use, progress was already underway on a development that would convert the access of information online into a simple, productive experience – for general users, perhaps the single most important step in the transformation of the internet into a powerful, near-instant source of information and access.
Even with the addition of domain names, the internet was still hard to explore and difficult to sort through. In the late 1980s, when the totalnumber of websites was less than one million – let alone the billions of addresses that exist today – finding information without knowing a specific address was nearly impossible, akin to going to the Library of Congress and trying to find a specific sentence just by paging through the books.
Before there was any hope of the internet becoming a practical tool, users – especially the general public – needed devices that would help.
In retrospect, the solution was so important that today it is impossible to imagine the internet without it. But computer networks existed for almost 20 years before anyone developed a practical method to quickly identify information and its location anywhere. What was needed was a tool that would cut through the jungle and find the treasure; it would be called a search engine.
Alan Emtage would later state with pride that he was the first person from Barbados, and also the first from the Caribbean, to be elected to the Internet Hall of Fame – an honor he received in 2017. Emtage choose a frostier climate for his college education, heading north to McGill University in Montreal, to study computer science. While training for his graduate degree in 1989, Emtage created a collection of software that he called “resource discovery tools” – services that the average user could employ to routinely connect to computers around the world, and automatically download listings of files available to the public.
“It happened organically,” Emtage would say of his work, “I didn’t have to ford rivers or climb mountains.”
These tools, which Emtage called “Archie” (short for “Archive”) would combine to serve as the world’s first internet search engine, pioneering many of the techniques still used by search engines today (for an example of the original Archie page, go here).
Emtage was yet another internet innovator who deliberately chose to not patent his discovery – a decision that would have earned him millions as other search engines were developed that contained his fundamental processes.
“I’m not a billionaire; that’s OK with me,” Emtage told an audience when he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2017. “We thought about [licensing] it long and hard, to do so would strangle the baby in the crib – it would restrict the ability of people to use what we had learned and expand on it.
“The internet as we know it today would not exist were it not for the fact that a lot of the organizations and individuals allowed the fruit of their work to be used for free.”
Emtage is also a rare technology groundbreaker who routinely declines recognition as being a “father” of the internet (although he graciously passes along credit to Archie for being “the great-great grandfather of Google and all of those other search engines”).
“I don’t feel like a father of anything,” Emtage told a reporter in 2013. “It’s not how I think of myself. Every now and again, I think, ‘you know what? I invented the search engine.’”
Archie was a useful first step toward practical searching online. However, it was a rudimentary program and, for general-interest internet users, unwieldy to use.
Many more tools for accessing the internet would follow – Infoseek, Aliweb, and WebCrawler were among many names that came and went. But one tool in particular for accessing the internet that debuted in 1993 would outshine most others, primarily because of what it represented for both the form and function of how users would go online.
For the 20-year-old Marc Andreessen in 1991, the internet seemed like a giant opportunity waiting to happen.
“The whole internet phenomenon had been gaining momentum for the past decade,” said Andreessen years later, “but it was still very much limited to a small audience of people. It wasn't friendly enough for people who wanted to do interesting things.”
Andreessen, while still an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and programmer Eric Bina, found a way to help millions do those interesting things. Andreessen and Bina developed a web browser that was both useful and engaging: released for a variety of computers in late 1993, they called their software Mosaic.
Where other browsers were bland and required multiple steps by users, Mosaic was alive with opportunity – a pleasant user-friendly screen, icons for choices, and – a particularly handy new innovation – bookmarks that would store the address of a chosen website for later use.
In other works, recalled Andreessen, “it was appealing to non-geeks.”
Mosaic cut to the core of what users wanted when they went online: software that was practical, but also appealing and intuitive.
Mosaic was the jump-start that the internet needed to capture the public’s interest – by mid-1994, more than 50,000 users a month were downloading the browser – and Mosaic is remembered as one of the prime catalysts for igniting the internet.
“Mosaic,” wrote Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols of ZDNet on the browser’s 25th birthday, “changed everything.”
Andreessen, at 22, would soon join entrepreneur and computer scientist James Clark in Silicon Valley, creating the company that (after haggling with the University of Illinois over the term “Mosaic”) became known as Netscape.
Netscape would dominate as a web browser; four months after the company released Mosaic Netscape 0.9, it accounted for 75 percent of all browsers.
In the mid-1990s, Andreessen would be portrayed as one of the young darlings in the emergence of Silicon Valley – an unconventional, anything-goes, financial adventurer; when he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in February 1996, Andreessen, in jeans and with bare feet, sat in an ornate chair next to the headline, “The Golden Geeks.”
Netscape would be acquired in March 1999 for $4.2 billion, making Andreessen one of the world’s richest computer scientists – four months before his 27th birthday.
The creation of the World Wide Web, domain names, search engines, and web browsers – four essential milestones in the evolution of the internet from a technical tool into a functional, practical, appealing device that could be used by everyone. The transformation had begun; digital communication would never be the same.
Harlan Lebo is a cultural historian at the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is the author of 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America. His previous books include Citizen Kane, Casablanca: Behind the Scenes, The Godfather Legacy, and Citizen Kane: A Filmmakers Journey. He resides in Los Angeles.