Who Invented the Internet?

Internet connections
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Toria)

The Internet: You love it; you need it; you can't live without it. But who invented it?

No single person invented the Internet. It was the result of years of collaboration during the long history of computers, and included engineers, researchers and scientists. 

Technology experts cite various government agencies — as well as a handful of individuals — that have played an instrumental role in creating what we know today as the Internet.

In the 1930s, Belgian information expert Paul Otlet became the first to put forth ideas resembling those behind the Internet, when he wrote about a "Radiated Library" that would connect TV watchers to encyclopedic knowledge through telephone signals.

Otlet also described how people might one day use this "network" to send one another messages, share files and even congregate in social hubs (think Facebook or Twitter).

The Internet as we know it really got started in the early 1960s. That was when J.C.R. Licklider — a computer scientist with technology company Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) — formulated a few unique ideas about global networking in a series of memos, describing an "Intergalactic Computer Network."

His idea: link computers together across the globe; and anybody near a computer could share information. As it turns out, Licklider had the right idea at the right time. The Cold War had the United States searching for a communication network that could survive a nuclear attack. 

These groundbreaking ideas landed Licklider a position as director of the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now known as DARPA), the government agency responsible for creating a time-sharing network of computers known as ARPANET, the precursor to today's Internet.

In October 1969, the first ARPANET communications were sent between Kleinrock's lab at UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) under the direction of Elizabeth Feinler. (Feinler later led the development of the domain names .gov, .com, .edu, .mil and others.) By the end of 1969, ARPANET had two more nodes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. 

Many of the researchers who worked on ARPANET made significant contributions to the evolution of the Internet, including Leonard Kleinrock, inventor of packet switching (a basic Internet technology). Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn invented TCP/IP protocol in the 1970s, and in 1972, Ray Tomlinson introduced network email.

During the 1980s, the National Science Foundation started to build a nationwide computer network that included its own supercomputers, called NSFNET. ARPANET had grown well beyond the needs of the Department of Defense, and so the NSF took control of the "civilian nodes." 

In 1990, ARPANET was officially decommissioned. Ultimately, the NSF aimed to build a network that was independent of government funding. The NSF lifted all restrictions on commercial use on its network in 1991 and in 1995, the Internet was officially privatized. At the time, the Internet was 50,000 networks strong, spanned seven continents, and reached into space. 

Follow Elizabeth Palermo on Twitter @techEpalermo, Facebook or Google+. Follow LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook Google+.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.