How does the internet work explained in simple terms
In its simplest form, the internet is a telecommunications system that allows computers and assorted other devices to communicate with each other using the same communications language, a protocol called TCP/IP, transmission control protocol / internet protocol.
It doesn't matter if the humans using the computers are communicating in English, French, German, or Chinese, the computers are communicating using TCP/IP. That's pretty amazing if you think about it. How many other things are done exactly the same way, everywhere in the world?
I could give a long lecture on all the nuts and bolts, and technical details, but what makes the internet possible is the common language, the protocols, that the computers speak. TCP/IP has spanned across generations of computers, using different operating systems.
To go into a detailed explanation of the geek speak with the concepts of TCP/IP and packet switching, can be confusing for a non technical person. Here at the Guru42 Universe we do what we can to take the geek speak and make it simple. After we cover some of the frequently asked questions answered on how the internet works and its origins, we will point out some links to learn more based on your level of interest.
Why was the Internet invented?
The catalyst for the creation of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) was the launch of the Russian spy satellite Sputnik in 1957, along with the tensions of the cold war. The goal of ARPA was to address the technology needs of the U.S Department of Defense. ARPA would be the parent of the computer network of the ARPANET.
There are still some people who say that the internet did not evolve from the idea of a network that could survive a catastrophic event. That is a matter of perspective, it definately depends on who you ask. In the 1960s, Paul Baran and the RAND Corporation's "On Distributed Communications" defined the concept of packet switching as an integral part of the new technology that would become the internet. The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit think tank created after World War II to connect military planning with research and development decisions.
According to the RAND website on Paul Baran and the Origins of the Internet:
"In 1962, a nuclear confrontation seemed imminent. The United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis. Both the US and the USSR were in the process of building hair-trigger nuclear ballistic missile systems. Each country pondered post-nuclear attack scenarios."
If you really want to get philosophical on the origins of the concept of the internet and its ties to cold war scenarios, an Atlantic Monthly article in 1945 titled "As We May Think " by Vannevar Bush addressed the aftermath of World War II and was looking at ways to make sure all the scientific data and lessons learned were not lost.
Vannevar Bush outlined the importance of federally funded scientific research and called for a national research foundation in another article published in 1945, "Science-The Endless Frontier." Bush was a pioneer in developing a joint cooperation between the science community and the government.
The internet has been an evolution of ideas over many years, and like the answer to most "who invented it" questions the answers are not always related to one individual at a single point in time.
When was the internet invented?
In the 1960s the vision of a worldwide network of computers by research scientist J.C.R. Licklider would lead to the ARPANET. In the paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” published in 1960, Licklider provided a guide for decades of computer research to follow. Larry Roberts, the principal architect of the ARPANET, would give credit to Licklider's vision.
The next phase in the evolution of the Internet would be the work of Bob Kahn and Vinton Cerf during the 1970s to create TCP/IP, the official language of the internet that made the world wide communications possble..
Some people point to September 2, 1969, the date that the first two computers communicated with each other on what would become the ARPANET as the official bith date of the internet. Others say the modern Internet was born on January 1, 1983 when NCP on the ARPANET was replaced by the TCP/IP protocols.
Who owns the Internet?
When I hear the question of "who owns the internet" I think in terms of ideas and ideals, not a collection of wires, silicon, and copper. The wires, the nuts and bolts, have build the internet, but that alone does not represent the internet. The power of the internet is not in the materials we use to build it, but from the ideas and ideals we use to create it. It is a world wide communications system that is far more fault tolerant than anything that came before because of the rules, the protocols, that the world has agreed upon, to create it.
One of the earliest visionaries that talked about a system of information sharing similar to the internet and the world wide web was Vannevar Bush. In 1945 an Atlantic Monthly article written by Bush titled "As We May Think," describes his theoretical machine called a "memex" that would be able to make links between documents. Many people point to "As We May Think" as the earliest published vision of the concept of hypertext. Another Bush article from 1945 entitled, "Science-The Endless Frontier" was equally influential. Bush outlined the importance of federally funded scientific research and called for a national research foundation.
Bush saw that the advancement of science and technology was a joint effort between government, education, and the business world. The creation of the internet was a combination of government funded research done through various universities, with the cooperation of various businesses. Hopefully everyone can remember how the internet was created, and realize no single entity owns it, and that was the point in creating it.
Do you want to learn more?
For a non technical person, to really understand how does the internet work, I would look at the history of the internet, and how it evolved. The Internet we know today was not developed from a single network that simply grew and grew, it was an evolution of many different communications and technology tools coming together.
I have been studying telecommunications and computing since the 1970s and I am fascinated by the many people who have contributed to technology that are unknown to the average person. The internet is especially interesting. Many of the early visionaries who set forth the ideas that became our modern internet were either government scientists, or in many cases, university professors or graduate students using government grants. They were creating a concept, not working on products to sell.
J.C.R. Licklider is sometimes called "Computing's Johnny Appleseed." In the paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” published in 1960, Licklider provided a guide for decades of computer research to follow.
J.C.R. Licklider guides 1960s ARPA Vision
In the 1960s, Paul Baran, one of the founding fathers of the internet as a researcher at RAND, developed the concept of packet switching as an integral part of the new technology that would become the internet.
Paul Baran developed packet switching
The old proverb necessity is the mother of invention is illustrated in the ideas of Internet and World Wide Web visionaries J.C.R. Licklider and Vannevar Bush. The difficult scenario that was the catalyst of their visionary ideas was surviving a war. Here is a bit more from my perspective.
Internet and World Wide Web visionaries ponder Surviving world war
For someone who is learning technology, and wants to understand how does the internet work at a much deeper level of geek speak ComputerGuru.net explains basic components of computer networks. Here are two links specific to understanding the core principles of the internet.
Packet switching, an integral part of internet technology and internet history explained in simple terms
The Internet protocol suite commonly known as TCP/IP is a set of communications protocols used for the Internet
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