How old is the internet?

Sunday, 28 June, 2020

Type ‘How old is the internet’ into Google, and almost six billion results will be returned.

And the chances are that if you clicked on two links at random, they’d give you differing answers.

Many sites would suggest 1990 or 1991. Others might point to 1985. And the more informed would direct you back to the late 1960s.

So which of these conflicting suggestions is correct, if any? Where have the wrong answers come from? And can you actually put a specific date on the emergence of new technology?

Caught in a web

Before we attempt to determine the answer to the question ‘how old is the internet’, let’s dispel a few incorrect assumptions.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, not 1991, as is commonly believed. It simply took two years for his vision to evolve into a working model.

Even though the World Wide Web established key principles like decentralisation and open source coding, it merely provided a way of accessing data online through links and sites.

It certainly didn’t herald the arrival of the internet – websites had been around since the days of Roland Rat and Mini Metros.

On the 15th of March 1985, the domain name was registered by a Massachusetts computer firm of the same name.

Yet the Symbolics Computer Corporation was merely adopting existing technology. They didn’t establish the concept of websites by launching their text-only site.

Speaking of text-only sites, some people have suggested Prestel is the oldest example of an internet-based concept.

Prestel launched in 1979, with individual computer terminals downloading information from central repositories, and interrogating databases for customised responses.

However, the true genesis of the internet lies even further back in the history books.

L to the O

By common consensus, the internet came into being on the 29th of October 1969, following the first direct communication between two computers housed in separate locations.

An American university attempted to send the word “LOGIN” 50 miles to another campus.

It relied on a system called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET – a new concept developed by the US Department of Defense (American spelling).

ARPANET’s packet switching technology involved breaking a message into component parts for transfer along the quickest available route – a principle still employed to this day.

The original experiment wasn’t wholly successful, because the system crashed after the L and O had been received. However, the academics didn’t give up.

Refinements made to ARPANET throughout the 1970s included the adoption of Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol.

Known as TCP/IP, this networking solution determines how data should be disassembled, transmitted, received and reconstructed as web pages/gaming data/images/Netflix content.

It’s a testament to the work of ARPANET’s unheralded and largely anonymous developers that the principles they established in the late 1960s continue to underpin the web to this day.

So how old is the internet? Fifty years and (almost) eight months old.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!