This is the part of the story that begins as any good science fiction movie starts. Every great story has a humble beginning. The story of the internet is no different. Today the web is the closest thing we have to a virtual companion. We are all commanders of our own "spacecraft" saying, "Computer, give me the weather in all fifty states and file my taxes while you are at it". While we are not yet verbally directing our will, for the time being, typing suites us just fine.
In the early days of computing, the machines we know and love today were behemoths. One computer would take up a whole room. Advances in vacuum tube design shrank them down over the years to a feather-weight 500 pounds. In addition to that, these beasts could only handle one process at a time. Everything that a computer did was sequential; add this, subtract that, print this, done. What's more, you had to communicate through a series of cards. We complain today about how rough Excel can be- if the early computer users only knew they would have a laugh.
Now with these large machines taking up lots of space, often times they had to be placed in specialized rooms. All the switches and vacuum tubes gave off a lot of latent heat. Heat is not hardware's best friend. Refrigeration rooms had to counteract this heating effect. Universities and large companies who owned these cold computer rooms did not fancy the idea of troves of programmers and developers milling around around multi-million dollar machinery. In order to interact with the computers, those cards mentioned above where to be handed of to a group of special computer operators. These folks where hired by the owners to prevent any harm, intentional or otherwise, to the computer. This was an attempt to limit the number of individuals the computer came in contact with.
As computers became more advanced everything changed. A virtual link was set up much to the dismay of the computer operators. These folks were no longer needed and sequentially lost their jobs. Not to worry, many of them moved into other roles, such as programming and hardware maintenance. This virtual link was monumental; now programmers had direct access to the computer via a terminal. This was not the only large change. The idea of sharing the computer's processing power among several people came around. No longer where computations performed one at a time. The computer now had the ability to handle multiple programs at once. The idea of a network was born.
Terminals and workstations were the main link to the computer. These were positioned in various configurations around a central point. Many of these arrangements began to focus on becoming more distributed. A group of terminals huddled around a central computer was ineffective; if the central hub went down, the whole system went down. These workstations were able to pick up more the computational responsibility and rely less on the central computer. This was possible with the birth of the transistor. This simple electronic component could be made faster, smaller, and cheaper than the vacuum tube. More of these could be placed into a smaller area with better results. Advancements in computer hardware took off. Computers became better, smaller, and faster than the gigantic monsters of old.
With developments in networking and hardware design, the powers at be began to see opportunities. War is a catalyst for technological development and after the threat from Cuba, the department of defense saw a major flaw in their command structure. If something happened to one of the command stations, communications would be shut down entirely, leaving the military decision makers unable to communicate with the people in charge of pressing the big red button. Something had to be fixed and a distributed network was the ideal solution.
Well that is how the story goes at least. In actuality the origins of a military network was not as combative as it is believed. The reasons behind a military funded network are not as fierce. Communications were unreliable at that time, both over long distances and between computers themselves. ARPANET as it was called was created simply to balance the limited supply of research computers with the overwhelming demand for programmers and developers.
The year is 1985 and "fuzzball" is the name of the game. This was the year that the NSFNET, the National Science Foundation Network allowed commercial links. These new Internet Service Providers could now sell connections to business and individuals. The speed was a whopping 56 kilobyte per second, about a full page of text per second. These "fuzzballs" were early servers that handled the connections. At this point, the internet was still something for serious hobbyists and research types.
Over the next decade there were many improvements on the how data was to be transferred from one computer to another. There had to be in place a protocol that everyone agreed on. This would make connections universal and complete regardless of the machine or operating system you had. TCP/IP was the end result of this process and continues to be in use to this day. Meanwhile, CERN, the group responsible for the Large Hadron Collider, made one of their projects public in 1991. The term World Wide Web was coined.
From this point, commercial, governmental, and scientific interests allowed the web to grow. Since the web lacks a central point and is not restricted by proprietary protocols it grew organically over the next couple of years.
Today the world wide web is massive. Over one trillion web sites are thought to exist. There are millions of subnetworks that all connect to comprise the internet. From its humble beginnings to social networking, email, and e-commerce the web is stunning and awe-inspiring. Change happens fast and whatever to come next will certainly be amazing.