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The place to begin is the beginningóand with the Internet, we need to go way back. Although the Web is the medium of the moment, the Internet has a long history, and locating its origins depends on how primitive an ancestor you seek.

The thread of the development of the Internet stretches all the way back to 1958, if you pull on it hard enough. The Internet's motheróthe organization that gave birth to itówas itself born in the contrail of Sputnik. In October, 1957, the USSR took the world by surprise by launching the first artificial satellite and made the U.S. suddenly seem technologically backward. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) as part of the Department of Defense in January, 1958.

Then, as now, ARPA's work involved a lot of data processing, much of it at various university campuses across the country. Each computer, like the college that hosted it, was a world unto itself. To work on the computer, you had to be at the college. To share the results of the work on the computer, you needed a letter carrier with biceps built up from carrying stacks of nine-track tapes from campus to campus. Information flowed no faster between computers than did the mail.

Bob Taylor, working at ARPA in 1967, developed the idea of linking together into a redundant, packet-based network all the computers of major universities participating in the agency's programs. In October, 1969, the first bytes crossed what was to become ARPAnet in tests linking Stanford Research Institute and the University of California at Los Angeles. By December, 1969, four nodes of the fledgling internetworking system were working.

The system began to assume its current identity with the first use of the Transmission Control Protocol in a network in July, 1977. As a demonstration, TCP was used to link together a packet radio network, SATnet, and ARPAnet. Then, in early 1978, the Transmission Control Protocol was split into a portion that broke messages into packets, reassembled them after transmission, kept order among the packets, and controlled error control, called TCP, and a second protocol that concerned itself with the routing of packets through the linkage of the network, called the Internet Protocol (IP). The two together made TCP/IP, the fundamental protocol of today's Internet.

If the Internet actually has a birthday, it's January 1, 1983, when ARPAnet switched over from the Network Control Protocol to TCP/IP. (By that time, ARPAnet was only one of many networks linked by TCP/IP.) To give a friendlier front end to communications with distant computer systems, Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN in Geneva in 1990, invented the World Wide Web.

The final step in the development of today's Internet came in 1991. In that year the National Science Foundation, which was overseeing the operation of the Internet, lifted its previous restrictions on its commercial use. The free-market free-for-all began.

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