Why Tim Berners-Lee didn't invent the internet
British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee is in the news at the moment, setting out a new “Contract for the Web” that web companies, governments and the likes of you and I should abide by to prevent descent into a “digital dystopia.” But whenever Sir Tim makes the headlines, a significant minority of outlets inevitably, and wholly incorrectly, refer to him as “the inventor of the internet.” Here’s why they’re wrong.
Don’t tell me: Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web
That’s right. In 1989.
And the web is different from the internet?
Very. It helps to remember that internet is a shortening of “interconnected network.” It’s made up of all the networks, servers, cables and other connected devices in the world. It’s the network over which a host of services can be carried, including the World Wide Web (which we’ll call the web here on out). Those services, the web included, can also be thought of as part of the internet.
What sorts of services?
Email, instant messaging, file transfer and, for those that remember it, Usenet – all are examples of internet services quite apart from the web.
And the web?
… is a bunch of documents that can be accessed by a piece of software you’re probably using right now: a web browser. Each document has a unique address starting with a www and ending with a domain like .com or .net. Usually, those documents are pages of hypertext (increasingly with images or videos thrown in). Using hyperlinks, these hypertext or web pages can link to each other, as well as other types of files, which is incredibly useful.
So you could say the internet is the hardware and the web is the software?
That might be a useful mental model to start understanding the distinction – for about two minutes. But then throw it out. Perhaps more fundamental to what the internet is, even more than servers and cables, is something that, in a sense, doesn’t exist at all: the internet protocol suite – the set of conceptual rules that manage how data sent over the internet is chopped up, addressed, directed, and put back together again.
And so far as the web goes, it isn’t really software as much as it is a chaotic, distributed library of documents stored all over the place. To complicate things again, the web could also be said to be the rules which govern how those documents are written, read and shared using the language of HTML and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. When they work well, these are the rules that, say, make sure a web page looks more or less the same in one web browser as it does in another.
Who did invent the internet?
It’s impossible to pin it to any one person, but if you were to try really hard, you might come up with Polish-American engineer Paul Baran, who first conceptualized packet switching in the early 1960s. Packet switching is this idea of chopping up the data to be transmitted over a network. It means that packets (the bits of data) belonging to different transmissions can share any one route over the network, or take different routes if needed.
He sounds like a good candidate
Except, as is so often the case, packet switching was independently invented around 1965 by British computer scientist Donald Davies of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), who some credit with coining the term packet switching itself. American computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock also did pioneering work in the field.
So where was the first, um, bit of internet?
Baran, Davies and Kleinrock all had a hand in the development of the first packet switching networks. Baran and Kleinrock worked on ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) founded by what is now DARPA in the USA, though the project drew heavily on Davies’ work at NPL.
Meanwhile Davies, along with NPL colleagues, created the NPL Network. Both networks became meaningfully active in 1969, with NPL arguably first across the line. They can both be thought of as prototypes of the internet we know today today. Perhaps a good candidate for the birth of the internet proper is the year 1973, when the two networks were connected, as were the Norwegian Seismic Array (NORSAR) and University College London.
What’s Tim Berners-Lee doing now?
Sir Tim has called for a Contract for the Web of nine principles: three each for governments, companies and citizens to abide by. It’s been backed by Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, who, along with other backers, will need to abide by the principles to remain backers. It’s worth a read. Requirements include companies protecting people’s privacy, and developing technology that “support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.” The Guardian has more on the details.
Super – thanks
No. Thank you.