How Did the Internet Come to Be? Part II: A Surprising Beginning

To the generation that grew up having access to the online world, the Internet seems an essential part of modern life that was simply destined to come into being. Because of this, it may come as a surprise to learn that the public almost did not get the Internet. For several decades, the only people who were able to use the pre-World Wide Web networks were in the military and in academia. This computer network was too expensive for the everyday person to afford, and the telecommunications companies resisted any attempts that the federal government made to extend funding to the private sector. However, despite this apparent impasse, the government, academia, and the early computer companies collaborated in a way unseen today in order to bring the Internet to the American public.

One of the earliest computer networks arose in the early 1970’s and was a series of connections between universities. Academics used this network, called the ARPANET, to share research within their own university and with other universities. In order to do so, they would transmit information electronically from primitive computers through AT&T’s underground telephone wires. The universities that had these connections benefitted immensely because they were connected to other research institutes. Furthermore, they also had the first supercomputers that attracted the top scientists from around the U.S.

A key drawback to this computer network was the exorbitant cost of leasing access to these wires. These leases cost thousands of dollars per month because the price depended on the amount of wire it took to connect two points. For example, two of the first universities to use the ARPANET were Michigan State University and Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, which are 233 miles apart. In order to connect these two schools, they had to lease over 200 miles of underground telephone wire. Although the government provided funding for the universities to conduct research using this network, the money to build and use the infrastructure still had to come out of the schools’ coffers.

Part of the reason it cost universities so much money to lease these lines was due to the fact that AT&T was the only company that could provide this service reliably. It was the most established phone company at the time and easily established a monopoly, enabling it to charge what it pleased. Universities tried to mitigate costs by having other universities join their network. If two schools found another university located geographically between them, they could split the cost three ways and benefit from the added resources each school offered.

Through government grants and a larger network of connected universities, computer scientists were able to develop better and faster networks. It was not long before people outside of the government and academia started hearing about the concept of “the Internet” and wanted to have access to it. Connecting to the Internet was still incredibly expensive, but people within academia and the National Science Foundation (NSF) believed that it was important to connect the public to this growing network. They went to Congress and argued that the best way to ensure feasible access for the rest of the country would be through a federal spending initiative.

Unfortunately, AT&T’s lobbyists blocked the NSF’s attempts to create a network similar to the one we have today. The lobbyists objected to the federal government subsidizing Internet access for the public, claiming that by doing so the government would be interfering with the private sector. In order to get around this, universities requested the government only pay for connections between the universities. The lobbyists did not see this as much of a market, so they agreed. Although this was not a direct way to provide Internet access to the public, people in the government hoped that there would be a trickle-down effect.

Academia, the federal government and the public got their wish when a young company called MCI Communications Corp. challenged AT&T’s monopoly in 1974. As a result of extensive litigation, MCI broke this monopoly in 1980 and enabled the overhaul of telecommunications in 1996. Universities had been trying to get around the “academics only” policy regarding Internet access since 1990 by providing indirect access to the public. It was evident to lawmakers in the 90’s that the public wanted the Internet and that companies and universities would continue to work to provide Internet services to the public regardless of any obstacles. In order to fulfill the needs of the public and energize the communications market, the Clinton administration signed into law the Telecom Act of 1996.

By this time, networks had begun to spring up all over the world. Computer scientists from across the globe collaborated to create browsers, systems, and interfaces to make the Internet more user-friendly and useful. Everyday people began to meet each other through newsletters and email. Companies were able to reach distant markets and people experienced an ease of access to information that forever changed the way they related to  the world. Around the globe, computers dialed up and the electronic crowing of modems heralded the dawning of the Internet Age.

Click here for Part 1.

Note: Liz’s blogging challenge at Eccentric inspired me to write this historical article on the Internet.


The majority of my research came from the Coursera course “Internet History, Technology, and Security.” It was a wonderful course taught by Dr. Charles Severance at the University of Michigan.







9 thoughts on “How Did the Internet Come to Be? Part II: A Surprising Beginning

  1. Once again an impressive posting and very detailed as well!

    I confess I had no idea the birth and early development of the internet was so fragmented and entangled in the interests of different corporate and private groups.

    The very first paragraph makes a valid point. It does make me curious as to whether, ultimately, it was always inevitable that the internet we know today would always have emerged, sooner or later, by the sheer force of progress and demand? Or is there another form in which the internet could be with us today and what might that form have looked like? Getting into the territory of alternative histories here! I had no idea the military and academia used a pre-www for decades!

    The other thing I have wondered for some time is what our experience of the internet might look/feel like, in the future? I know there are already headsets you can wear which allow you the impression that you’re actually walking around and interacting in another ‘cyberspace’ world. Its a big step from surfing the web on a computer screen to giving the sensation of actually being ‘inside’ a world which only really exists in cyberspace (the Tad Williams Otherland books are based on that very premise, of a world which the super rich have created and exists only in a virtual cyber world which people become trapped in and cannot reconnect to the ‘real’ world).

    Okay, that’s a sci-fi story but it does make me wonder what our internet experience could be like in ten/twenty years time. Makes me wonder if places like the military and academia are precisely the places where the internet experience of the future is being experimented with today?

    Thanks for sharing this post, much food for thought.

    • I am glad you liked the post!

      Massive technological innovations such as the Internet inevitably make me revisit my internal debate about fate and destiny. Things like this make me think that there are some things that are simply meant to be. Alas, this is not really the most scientific conclusion and I know my friends in academia would want me to go have my head checked… or at least add this as another reason for why I should have it checked.

      Speaking of alternate histories, have you checked out the whole “steampunk” concept? It is a contemporary projection of how people in the Victorian era would have imagined their future technology to be. Pretty cool stuff.

      I wonder how our Internet will look in the future too? I think that is going to have to go on my list of questions to try to answer. “The Matrix” could be a possible future or perhaps something more like “Ghost in the Shell.” I will try to find some actual evidence to suggest what it could look like instead of basing my opinions and answers on movies. Although, the Tad Williams Otherland books seem like a pretty good prediction.

      Thank you for such a though-provoking response! It will definitely direct my research. 🙂

  2. This is a good overview of the direction things took. I really am enjoying reading the impressions and interpretations of someone the age of my younger son. As an early computer technology adopter myself (March 1980), I think these two articles are a fascinating look at what people in your generation find relevant and important in the dialogue of how we got to where we are today.

    Even more fascinating is your viewpoint in the article preceding this one, the Deep Dive Web because it segues very nicely with this one.

    I appreciate your interest, research, and presentation of this topic because knowing where things come from is as important as knowing how to use them. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you so much for reading my article! I am glad that it offers you an interesting perspective in contrast with your own experience of early computer technology. It is fascinating how people of relatively close generations interpret the same events.

      I am also glad that you liked the “Diving the Deep Web” article and that you found the most recent article a good followup. Thank you for your thoughtful reply and your kind words. 🙂

  3. I read this post the other day, but I was thinking about this post and a past post that you have written about how some people cannot afford internet access and how it limits them so much, well this was brought to mind when I have a friend who is a college student on a very limited budget…and he told me that he doesn’t have internet because he can’t afford it, but that he gets a connection sometimes from a business that is nearby…so on the occasional connection he is able to get internet.

    That conversation made me think about you post, because I could not imagine being a college student without internet access. Makes no sense why we cannot get free internet access at home for free. Sort of off topic, but this post and the other made me think of this conversation.

    It’s sort of funny, because growing up as a child we had no internet, so it was like watching the internet come to be, I remember my first computer and first time getting online.

    Odd to be in the generation that watched the internet become what it is today. We watched it go from nothing to this giant communications vessel that is used for good and for evil.

    • Gosh, I can’t imagine having been in college without having access to the Internet. Besides the fact that research would have been insanely tedious, it would have limited the amount of socializing I could have done. It seems that the Internet has become a big part of the college social experience because of Facebook.

      It is so odd that we can remember the time when it was not so important and did not seem like a necessary service. Sometimes I become nostalgic for the times when we had to read the paper to get the news/weather or turn on the non-HD television. Children born today will think we are so odd for not having had the Internet at one point!

      I really enjoyed hearing about your conversation with your college student friend! He has a lot of dedication to go to school without dependable Internet access.

  4. Thanks Rebecca, not only that he is a med student, so trying to catch the occasional signal from across the street from his apartment (think that’s what he said), that would be a pain.

    • Wow! A med student! That is crazy! Though it does explain the tight budget – I hear those programs can be pretty expensive.

  5. Pingback: Diving the Deep Web: An In-depth Look | Cybernid

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