Origins of the Internet (2010)

Excerpts from A Brief History of the Internet (prepared for Diplo Foundation by Ian Peter 2010)



Note – this lesson largely concentrates on the technical developments. Although the Internet cannot be understood from these, it will help to understand the multistakeholder and international origins of certain core elements of the Internet.




In the introduction to this lesson series, we made clear that we believe that the only way to explain the history of phenomena we know as the Internet is to outline the multitude of historical events which together created the Internet. Nevertheless, people will want to continue to look for a single point origin, so in this first lesson we are going to look at the five most common theories for Internet origins.

Leaving aside the wilder theories, in this lesson we will look at five theories of Internet origins, and you can decide for yourself. For me? Well, I’ll tell you how I feel about all of this after outlining the main theories. They are (and excuse the technical terms for now, I’ll explain them as we go)


1. A technique called packet switching represents the origins of the Internet

2. The Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) represents the origins of the Internet

3. A range of telecommunications industry activities in data networks represents the true origins

4. The range of inventions and activities emanating from Xerox Palo Alto Laboratories, including Ethernet and PUP, represent the true beginnings.

5 .The birth of the Internet is best explained through a history of applications rather than the technical protocols above.

All right. Lets examine these theories and why they lead to quite different conclusions. I’ll try to keep this stuff simple.


But firstly – what criteria will we use to determine whether these events represent the beginnings of the Internet? I suggest that an early Internet has to be

  1. a connection between different types of networks (that’s what an Internet is)
  2. involving computers
  3. involving humans communicating with each other
  4. an actual event, not just a theoretical document.




Packet switching is a technique for sending messages across a network. There are a number of varieties, but all intending to ensure that “packets” of data arrive safely and are assembled in the right order.


The Arpanet 1969 claim to Internet origins largely rests on acceptance of the theory that packet switching is the beginning of the Internet, and a belief that this was the first ever packet switching exchange. As we are told,  (UCLA Press Release, 2004) [i]

“On October 29 1969, UCLA computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock led a team of engineers in launching the first Internet message from UCLA to Stanford Research Institute, as part of the Arpanet project. As Kleinrock is purported to have reflected on the 35th anniversary of this event in 2004,

“When we sent that first message, it marked the birth of a new method of global communications that has forever changed the course of business, politics, entertainment, education and social interaction”.



There are a couple of things to note if we follow this theory.


  • It was not the first packet switching event
  • It was not about people communicating over distance
  • It was not a connection relating to “a network of networks” (a commonly held definition of what the Internet is)


However, what Arpanet did in 1969 that was important was to develop a variation of a technique called packet switching. In 1965, before Arpanet came into existence, an Englishman called Donald Davies had proposed a similar facility to Arpanet in the United Kingdom, the NPL Data Communications Network. It never got funded; but Donald Davies did develop the concept of packet switching, a means by which messages can travel from point to point across a network. Although others in the USA were working on packet switching techniques at the same time (notably Leonard Kleinrock and Paul Baran), it was the UK version that Arpanet first adopted.” [ii]


There is another reason it is important to delve into this a little – that is because the theory of nuclear war origins relies on a belief that it was Paul Baran’s version of packet switching which was adopted by Arpanet.


This version of  Internet history was fuelled largely by the PBS television series “Triumph of the Nerds” some years ago, and by the earlier writings of Silicon Valley gossip columnist Robert Cringely in the beautifully titled “Accidental Empires – how the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle foreign competition, and still can’t get a date” (Penguin, 1992),  This belief suggests that the Internet was invented in the Pentagon in 1969. The theory goes on to suggest that the Internet network invented in the Pentagon was designed to survive a nuclear attack.


But this was not so, as confirmed by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, as well as Bob Taylor who headed the Arpanet Project.  [iii]
And was it the first packet switching event? Ronda Hauben refers to a 1966 event when Donald Davies in the UK implemented a packet switch connecting a set of host computers. [iv]

Kim Veltman(2002) goes further in exploring this

“We are almost always told that the Internet began solely in America. This is not really true. The earliest pioneers included a Frenchman, Louis Pouzin, who introduced the idea of data grams and an Englishman, Donald W. Davies, who was one of the inventors of packet-switching. Another of the great pioneers in Britain was Peter T. Kirstein, who went to America at the beginning of the Arpanet in 1969 when it was decided that Davies could not go for reasons of national security. … The National Physical Laboratory in Great Britain set up the first test network on these principles [of packet switching] in 1968. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency decided to fund a larger, more ambitious project in the USA. Hence an English project of 1968 inspired the beginnings of the US Internet in 1969” [v]

Another pivotal early experiment of note in the origins of packet switching referred to above is the work of Louis Pouzin, whom developed the Cyclades network in France between 1971 and 1975.  That experiment came to an end in 1978, but in the process greatly influenced the work of Arpanet – and the development of the packet switching concept (datagram was Pouzin’s term for a broadly similar development)


What follows from this analysis is that, if we believe that the first trials of packet switching represents the beginnings of the Internet, the Internet may have begun in the UK or France, not USA.


Something else to note about Arpanet – it was not about people using computers to communicate at all in 1969. Arpanet was about time-sharing. Time sharing tried to make it possible for research institutions to use the processing power of other institutions computers when they had large calculations to do that required more power, or when someone else’s facility might do the job better.


So lets remember packet switching as an important development that occurred simultaneously in a few different places – an important building block for the Internet to come, but this was not the Internet.



This widely held theory appears to be that adopted by the US Government when it awarded Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honour in that country.

Among today’s Internet community, this is the most commonly held belief, fed largely by the impressive and ongoing role played by Vinton Cerf in particular in the early evolution of today’s Internet and its governance structures.

TCP/IP is the backbone protocol which some people claim is the basis for determining what the Internet is. It was developed in the 1970s in California by Vinton Cerf, Bob Kahn, Bob Braden, Jon Postel and other members of the Networking Group headed by Steve Crocker. TCP/IP was developed to solve problems with earlier homogenous attempts at communication between computers undertaken by ARPANET.

Vinton Cerf had worked on the earlier Arpanet protocols while at the University of California in Los Angeles from 1968-1972. He moved to Stanford University in late 1972. At the same time Bob Kahn, who had been the chief architect of the Arpanet while working for contracting firm Bolt Beranek and Newman, left that firm and joined ARPANET.

In October 1972 ARPANET publicly demonstrated their system for the first time at the International Computer Communications Conference in Washington DC. Following that meeting, an International Networking Group chaired by Vinton Cerf was established.

Bob Kahn visited Stanford in the spring of 1973 and he and Vint Cerf discussed the problem of interconnecting multiple packet networks that were NOT identical. They developed the basic concepts of TCP at that time, and presented it to the newly established International Networking Group. This meeting and this development, this theory suggests, rates as the beginning of the Internet.

By 1975 the first prototype was being tested. A few more years were spent on technical development, and in 1978 TCP/IPv4 was released.

Cerf writes

“We had running code by the middle of 1975 for TCP. We ran this protocol on selected nodes of the ARPANET, the packet radio net and the packet satellite net – all of which were ARPA sponsored. Xerox PARC implemented a version for their Ethernet around 1976 if memory serves – connected it to the nascent Internet by way of packet radio in the San Francisco Bay area”.[vi]

Among those working on this specification were researchers from Stanford University, a range of other universities, BBN contractors, Xerox Parc employees, and researchers from the United Kingdom, France and Norway.

It would be some time before it became available to the rest of us. In fact, TCP/IP was not even added to Arpanet officially until 1983.

So which date do we celebrate if we adopt the TCP/IP origins theory?

We do not yet have a definitive date, but 1975 seems to be the definitive year in which, for the first time, networks connected to each other. But was the first connection between disparate networks a TCP/IP one? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out.

Although we will see that TCP/IP was not the first networking protocol, it was the one that was eventually adopted, and so is our second key development in the emergence of the Internet

But was it the first connection? Let’s explore other theories as well before making a final determination.


The primary proponent of this theory would be Kim Veltman of the McLuhan Institute in Holland. As Veltman states (2002), [vii]

” Since its beginnings …..there have been many stories about the Internet. One is that the Internet was a US invention. The story that officials in AT&T (a large American telecommunications company) were once adamantly opposed to the Internet led to a received wisdom that telephone or telecommunications companies (telcos or telecoms) and the Internet were unrelated. The telephone companies, we are told, were big monopolies, blind to innovation and the Internet was started on the sly by a few scientists and academics. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) version is more subtle: The telcos did infrastructure, while those who developed the Internet did applications.”

As Veltman points out, the AT&T Bell Labs did some of the first digital transmission and switching in 1962, seven years before the “US Internet” began. When the Department of Defense (DoD) commissioned the Advanced Research Project Agency’s Network (ARPANET) to do research into networking, it was AT&T that provided 50kbps lines. In 1969, the year that Arpanet began, AT&T’s Bell Labs developed Unix which was the operating system behind the early Internet, and was one of the key operating systems in the middle and late ARPANET.

Between 1969 and 1972, Bell Labs also developed the C programming language basic to much of Internet software. In 1970, AT&T installed the first cross-country link between the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) in Boston. In 1976, AT&T’s Bell Labs developed Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP), which was distributed with UNIX one year later.

All of these were important points of origin of the Internet as we know it, so the telco theory, unpopular as it is in Internet circles, should perhaps be explored in more detail. Certainly the physical infrastructure created by the telcos was central, and certainly telcos had worked out protocols for sending voice data between disparate networks early in the piece. In the examples above, they added the component of computers and networked them. Can we completely eliminate the telco origins and contributions to early developments?

This set of developments is important, because it brings in commercial origins, as well as the academic research/government funded origins of the more popularly espoused theories. With Unix and UUCP, the telcos played a larger part than many would have us believe.



And then we come to the theory advanced by the person who headed the Arpanet project itself, Bob Taylor.

“I believe the first internet was created at Xerox PARC, circa ’75, when we connected, via PUP, the Ethernet with the ARPAnet. PUP (PARC Universal Protocol) was instrumental later in defining TCP.

For the internet to grow, it also needed a networked personal computer, a graphical user interface with WYSIWYG properties, modern word processing, and desktop publishing. These, along with the Ethernet, all came out of my lab at Xerox PARC in the ’70s, and were commercialized over the next 20 years by Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, Novell, Sun and other companies that were necessary to the development of the Internet.[viii]

John Shoch, who worked with Robert Metcalfe on the Ethernet developments at Xerox Parc, and who is at great pains to stay out of debates about who started the Internet, has concluded that PUP (the Parc Universal Protocol) was the first complete, operational set of Internet protocols. Schoch was also involved in the development of TCP/IP at a later date. To quote Shoch,

“Starting around 1974, Xerox PARC designed and deployed an internet architecture called PUP; it was up and running on multiple machines and networks when TCP was just a design for byte stream protocols. Input from Xerox’ operational experience helped convince the TCP working group to add the IP packet layer!”[ix]


There is no doubt the important role of Xerox Parc in so many important computing inventions . But in addition to this, they might in fact provide another answer for us – the first Internet connection may not have involved TCP/IP or government funding at all, and may be solely the result of commercial research?


Perhaps answering this line of confusion as to whether the Internet can be represented by either telephony infrastructure or any particular protocol at the transport layer, Mitra Ardron (2004) takes it further with another theory altogether.

“I would suggest that defining the history of the internet by the particular protocol that won is only one way to do it. Ask yourself – would it still be the internet if we were using ATM, or X.25 or any of the other competing protocols? Of course it would.

An alternative view of history tracks the history of the Internet as the ubiquitous use of electronic “online” communications. The history belongs at the applications level – with the development of email, with the progression from proprietary databases to Gopher and Wais to the World Wide Web, and from newsgroups and conferencing (eg BITnet and Usenet) through mailing lists and blogs.

One very significant trend which tends to get ignored is the various online systems, the early Source, Compuserve, Dialcom, and of course APC networks, Fidonet etc. If anything, the history of the use of the Internet, at least from the point of view of the public, owes more to that stream of development than the more common version.

From that perspective, the switch from X.25 to TCP/IP around say ’92 for the transport was just something that was done when cost/benefit of TCP/IP dropped below that of X.25.”[x]

Ardron refers to the existence of an emerging interconnectivity regime between various commercial, non-profit and hobbyist networks which began to emerge from the mid 1980s without necessarily using TCP/IP. During this pre-web era, email began to be exchanged freely between networks according to emerging standards and through various gateways. Newsgroups emanating from academic circles became available on various networks, with only a percentage of the people utilizing the growing global network using TCP/IP.

And there you have it – various theories, various players – I submit they are all important in understanding the Internet.  And paternity suits abound, but , I do suggest,  the mother of the Internet is clear. Necessity is the mother of invention, and whenever we really need something, humans will find a way to have it.

That certainly seems to be the case with the Internet. There had to be an Internet sometime, because we, as a human species, have always had this deep desire to communicate, and to communicate over distance.

Thus, speech and language, our primary and oldest communication tools, have been with us since very early in our evolution. And, not long after, we developed written forms of communication, and began recording our thoughts and history on stone, papyrus, wood, cave walls, and any other means available. This is perhaps our primary activity as humans; in our essence we are communicating beings.

Well before the age of transport, we were looking at ways to communicate over distance. Some of our early methods were carrier pigeons, smoke signals, and morse code flags.

Then, as the age of transport, the industrial revolution and the beginnings of the information age came to us, we set about using the new tools and technologies available to us to further our capacity to communicate and to disseminate information.

The Internet as such couldn’t have existed without the big inventions of the 19th century – electricity and the telegraph. And, to a lesser degree, there was unlikely to be an Internet as we know it before there were the standard electronic broadcast media of radio and television. So the building blocks were the existing communications and broadcasting technologies. We’re not going to go into all of that – there are lots of other sources of information on Marconi, Alexander Graeme Bell, Tesla, and the other pioneers whose inventions the Internet rode on. But let’s focus in on the development of electronic networks, because here we begin to see the future shape of the Internet.



Is there a winner?


Examining these various events, we come to some important findings.


  1. There are a number of valid claims to origins of the Internet.
  2. Although an original date and place might be obtainable for the first networked transmission that could be called an Internet, the result would need by definition to include more than one party or network, and is unlikely to be a satisfactory or useful conclusion.
  3. Not only US projects were involved in the beginnings of the Internet.
  4. Not only government funded US research programs were involved in the beginnings of the Internet.
  5. Not only telcos and the commercial sector were involved in the beginnings of the Internet.
  6. Neither Arpanet nor TCP/IP is present in all valid theories.

These findings are important lest any institution or organisation lays claim to some proprietary ownership of the Internet. Although some governments and organisations played pivotal roles in the evolution of the Internet, nothing in the history of the Internet gives any one organization or person or event any proprietary claim of ownership. As we shall see, that pivotal fact not only helped to create the Internet as the open facility it is, but represents a key aspect of the new medium.


References and further reading


[iv] Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben, Netizens; On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, 1997.


[v] Kim Veltman, 2002 American Visions of the Internet Digicult, July 2003.

[vi] private email with author

[vii] Kim Veltman, 2002 American Visions of the Internet Digicult, July 2003.

[viii] Email exchange from 2004 reported at

[ix] Email exchange from 2004 reported at

[x] Mitra Ardron, email reported in Internet History Newsletter, October 2004 accessed from


For a general history of a technical nature on the Arpanet contributions written by many of the major collaborators see also






Questions and tests


Name 5 of the major collaborators on the early beginnings of the Internet and  briefly describe their roles.


What was the primary purpose of ARPANET when it began?


Describe the European contributions to the beginnings of the Internet.


Describe the role of telecommunications companies in the  early days of the Internet.


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