The public internet is almost 30 years old, and what we use today would be almost unrecognizable to the people who built the networks that came before. Stacker has compiled a list of 50 fascinating facts about internet technology, culture, history, and more, using everything from Buzzfeed and Pew Research to the Internet Hall of Fame.
Beginning with ARPANET in 1969, computer scientists realized they could use cables to link individual computers into networks. From there, they continued to build out bigger and better features until the World Wide Web stretched around the world and allowed users to add images and even sounds to rudimentary websites.
As more and more people used the public internet, computer scientists continued to make huge leaps forward in technology, innovations that, in 2020, we can’t imagine living without. From the invention of the MP3 came filesharing and eventually streaming music. From inventions like relational databases and sorting algorithms came more powerful and accurate search engines, changing the way people interacted with a rapidly growing number of websites.
We think a lot today about social networking, but qualities of social networks were pioneered by technologies like Really Simple Syndication—RSS—that let search engines get an easy heads-up that websites had new content. And specialized code like HTML, CSS, and PHP turned the plain, static internet into a dynamic, multimedia experience that’s accessed by 90% of all American adults.
Where will the internet be in another 30 years? If history has taught us anything, it’s that we have no idea what talented computer scientists and theorists around the world can dream up next. In fact, one of the key lessons from lists like this is how important it is to document what happens online—websites constantly disappear, companies go bankrupt, and different brands merge their online identities. Sites like the Internet Archive, founded in 1996 and with a catalog of tens of billions of website “captures” since then, help to secure internet knowledge for future generations.
In 1958, Bell Labs invented the very first modem. The company was the descendent of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and the modem capitalized on phone lines as a great way to “beep” information back and forth—like the telltale dial-up modem sound many of us could probably still hum today.
For computers to exchange information, there has to be a set of rules to make sure the pieces don’t mix, crash, or get lost. Computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock developed packet switching beginning in 1961. This is just what it sounds like: Computers bundle information into small containers called packets, which are securely passed back and forth through network cables that obey shared “rules of the road,” so to speak.
In 1963, computer scientists developed the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, or ASCII, a way to share characters like letters and numbers so as to ensure they’re uniform across any computer or display that uses them. This is a big change from typewriting, for example, where what results is just a flat piece of paper that can’t be repurposed without retyping.
In 1965, computer scientists linked two faraway computers for the first time—a key milestone the same way it was for telephone and radio many decades before. Today, everything we send between computers still travels over physical infrastructure or, in some cases, an airborne medium like satellite internet.
Today, most of the world is interlinked with a massive cabling infrastructure that includes gigantic cables beneath all the world’s oceans. In 1969, computer scientists made proto-internet history when they linked four computers together at the same time. This sounds so simple, but it requires complex thinking: How do you decide which computer passes information in which direction, and how do you make sure everything arrives both quickly and safely?
The Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA (and today known as descendent forms DARPA or ARPA-E), made the first local computer network of any kind in 1969. ARPANET became a vital forerunner to what became the internet and wasn’t decommissioned until 1990.
In 1972, computer scientists made the first list of registered domains. At the time, these were strings of numbers that look like IP addresses—our domains are “plain language” shields for these numbers.
Today, we all use a lot of wireless products, but businesses still primarily rely on wired internet. The ethernet cables we still use were invented in 1973 and used for telecom networks before the development of ethernet internet. Like a railroad or a highway built in pieces, if everyone agrees on one set of guidelines, they can build a uniform network that works well for all users.
Computer scientist Ray Tomlinson invented email in 1974, and it’s reported that he doesn’t remember what his first message said. At the time, it would have been strictly plain text with no formatting.
In 1974, the term “internet” was used for the first time to describe a growing network of linked computers around the world. The term contrasts with intranet, for example, meaning an internal rather than external network.
Buzzfeed reports the first spam message was sent in 1978 over ARPANET by a man named Gary Thuerk, a computer seller. That was just a few years after email was invented in the first place.
In 1980, users built the first examples of shared online game spaces. These were text-based games called multiuser dungeons (MUDs) that covered a variety of genres. Active MUDs still exist in 2020.
In 1981, computer users made the world’s first local area networks, or LANs. These were made possible by the first generation of ethernet products made for both business and home computers, letting users plug in and link up.
In 1996, Brewster Kahle founded the Internet Archive, which remains a vital place for programmers, historians, and public interest advocates. The Internet Archive allowed Stacker to pinpoint when Jeeves disappeared from AskJeeves.com—keep reading to find out when that was.
In 1985, the National Science Foundation started a new nationwide network to make it easier for researchers to share information. The resulting network, NSFnet, stayed online until 1995.
Computer manufacturer Symbolics registered the first “top level” domain, Symbolics.com, in 1985. The company is gone and the domain has changed hands, but it has been active since 1985, making it the oldest exigent dot-com domain in the world.
Compuserve engineer Steve Wilke invented the GIF image format in 1987. In many image-processing programs, for a decade or more after that, the format was even called “Compuserve GIF.” Wilke made news when he insisted he meant for the pronunciation to be “jiff.”
1989 was a big year for internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who coined the term World Wide Web while working at CERN in Switzerland. A year later, he invented HTML, the markup language that turns plain text into—at the time—separate paragraphs and even lists.
In 1990, privacy advocates founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This organization works to limit intrusion of tech giants into our lives, which has been an uphill battle for 30 years now.
Versions of the internet existed for over a decade before public users outside of university programs could finally get online in 1991. Most ISPs at the time sprung up in college towns, because that’s where existing networks and technology hubs were.
The first version of something like a search engine was made in 1991 and named Archie, short for archive. Should it be pronounced “ar-key” or “ar-chee”? As with GIF, you must choose for yourself. Search engines are powered by unfathomably huge databases and a series of clever algorithms that shorten the trip from A to Z.
An early proto-blogger named Jean Armour Polly, using the handle “Net Mom,” was the first to say users were “surfing” the World Wide Web in 1992. That was just a year after public availability of the internet, which caused a tidal wave, so to speak, of new terminology.
During their peak in the mid-to-late 1990s, America Online (AOL) was using up 50% of all the CD-ROM discs in the world for their free software mailings. These usually came with offers of a certain number of free hours. The caveat was that many users didn’t have a local telephone number to dial, meaning they paid long-distance rates.
Mosaic, the first graphic web browser and the ancestor of Netscape Navigator, came out in 1993. For the first time, public internet users could add small files that would load into the layout of the page using HTML tags.
Engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg invented the MP3 audio format in 1995. Like the pixels of a digital camera, digital audio involves turning the smooth curves of real sounds into chunked, compressed sounds that make up reasonably sized files. MP3s were revolutionary for having a tiny size that retained listenable audio quality, as well as letting users tune just how much they wanted to compress the file versus keeping the sound quality.
In 1996, Jennifer Ringley put her life online in a very primitive form of streaming video, where a still image refreshed on a set interval of seconds. Jennicam gained huge popularity by 1996 standards, and Ringley eventually monetized it for viewers who wanted to see…well, her more private moments.
Ask Jeeves was an iconic early search engine started in 1996 on which a P.G. Wodehouse-inspired butler character named Jeeves helped you find websites. Its creators rebranded to Ask.com and began phasing out the Jeeves character, who officially disappeared from the site in early 2006.
In 1998, Google was founded as a revolutionary search engine in progress, named for the large number called a googol. Before Google, search engines were much patchier and often more like lists of recommended sites. Google’s technology used feedback, such as which results users really clicked on—even if those didn’t have the most appearances of search terms—to continue to improve its search results.
In 1999, Napster started as a peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Users could put shareable files into dedicated folders, allowing other users to search their offerings and choose what to download.
Filesharing service Napster launched in 1999 and was quickly sued by a handful of artists, the most high-profile of which was Metallica. After several months of newsworthy court procedures, they succeeded in having the Napster service taken down. Napster tried to pivot and rebrand, but their popularity never got close to those 1999 numbers again.
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Today, we’re used to curated feeds on Facebook or Twitter, or even personalized content on news sites. This is all made possible because a team including tech luminary Aaron Swartz invented the RSS feed—Really Simple Syndication—in 2000. That RSS technology lets search spiders identify any new stuff on a website extremely quickly and easily.
Dooce is still the online home of writer Heather Armstrong, who started the site in 2001 as an outlet for her personal thoughts, including those regarding her coworkers. She was fired from that job as a result of the blog, but she leveraged that event into a career of which momentum has only started to wane in recent years.
Free internet dating behemoth OKCupid started in 2003 and quickly spread to even the rural corners of the United States. Today, almost all the dating sites and apps you can think of are owned by the same company: Match, the creators of Match.com.
Internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee was knighted in 2003. Other knighted computer scientists include Quicksort inventor Tony Hoare and microprogramming inventor Maurice Vincent Wilkes.
We remember 2004 as the year of Facebook, but it’s also the year the Mozilla Foundation introduced the Firefox browser. The Foundation began the year before as a spinoff from the defunct Netscape company.
In Facebook profiles, each user is assigned a name based on when they joined. Mark Zuckerberg’s profile number ID is 4. The website was also originally called The Facebook.
YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim uploaded the first video to YouTube in 2005. In the video, Karim walks around the San Diego Zoo.
Reality TV celebrity Tila Tequila was explosively popular on the young internet, reaching a peak of 1.5 million MySpace friends in 2005. Her social fame forecasted the kind of influencer culture that didn’t take off until years after her star began to dim.
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey also sent the first tweet on March 21, 2006. It’s hard to imagine in the politically fraught, 280-character Twitter climate of 2020, but the site—originally called Twttr—was a microblogging service full of people sharing just a few words in a more diary-like style. Everything else, from active links to multimedia, came later.
In 2009, users made the first-ever transaction with cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Bitcoin combined the idea of a shadow economy with a then-new cryptography style called blockchain, with prices peaking at astronomical highs in the early 2010s.
Iconic early website host Geocities offered free small websites to users around the world. The service hosted 7 million sites across thousands of “neighborhoods” by the time it shut down in 2009.
In 2012, Google engineers said up to 20% of the site’s searches in any given day were brand new. Assembling long strings of words formerly helped searchers find exactly what they want, but in 2019, Google changed their algorithm to begin discarding parts of user strings from their searches without their permission.
In 2013, more than 2.5 million people still paid to subscribe to AOL services. Statistically, these customers are likely to be in places that are underserved by broadband and still rely on vanishing dial-up services.
The 2016 YouTube video for “Baby Shark Dance” holds the record for most YouTube views at over 8 billion, passing other multibillion club juggernauts like “Gangnam Style.” Slate’s podcast Decoder Ring explains that “Baby Shark” isn’t even a new song, but rather a children’s version of a song that dates back decades and has been performed by different artists.
Pew Research reports that 100% of Americans age 18–29 use the internet. For adults overall, the number falls to a still astonishingly high 90%.
Buzzfeed reports that the original website for the movie “Space Jam” is still alive and well, making it a time machine to 1996 web design.
Buzzfeed reports that HowOldIsTheInter.net shares up-to-date information on how many days we’ve all been online. In 2020, the internet’s age is in the mid-11,000s.
Buzzfeed reports that the first website, a landing page at CERN’s domain describing what the “internet project” was trying to do, is still online after 29 years. CERN is where World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee put the global network online.
Microsoft developed Internet Explorer to go out with its brand new Windows 95 operating system, and the iconic animated lowercase “e” icon followed internet users for the next 20 years until the release of Microsoft Edge in 2015.
One of Google’s trademarks from the very beginning is a display that shows how long your search took. For this piece, Stacker searched “How fast is a Google search?” and got an answer in 0.6 seconds. Buzzfeed reports that the average time is 0.2 seconds.