Rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web

As low-cost personal computers, software, and network services began to flood the mass market, a revolutionary communications network mushroomed.

Summary of Event

The Internet is a loose collection of interconnecting commercial and noncommercial computer networks, including online information services, that use standard protocols (or rules) to exchange information. The Internet began as the ARPANET, ARPANET an electronic messaging and research tool put together in the late 1960’s by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The ARPANET linked together computers at universities that were doing military-funded research and other research facilities around the world. The ARPANET was designed to allow uninterrupted data routing in the event of a nuclear war bypassing failed connections. Internet
World Wide Web
Computers;Internet communication
[kw]Rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web (Mid-1990’s)
[kw]Internet and the World Wide Web, Rise of the (Mid-1990’s)
[kw]World Wide Web, Rise of the Internet and the (Mid-1990’s)
[kw]Web, Rise of the Internet and the World Wide (Mid-1990’s)
World Wide Web
Computers;Internet communication
[g]World;Mid-1990’s: Rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web[09070]
[c]Communications and media;Mid-1990’s: Rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web[09070]
[c]Computers and computer science;Mid-1990’s: Rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web[09070]
[c]Science and technology;Mid-1990’s: Rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web[09070]
[c]Trade and commerce;Mid-1990’s: Rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web[09070]
Cerf, Vinton
Gore, Al
Berners-Lee, Tim
Bush, Vannevar

Although the people using the ARPANET at these institutions discovered the enormous utility of a network that linked them with their peers around the world, the network did not have a major effect outside this sphere because few businesses and individuals had computers. When the first commercial online service, CompuServe, CompuServe[Compuserve] started in 1969, few computer users existed to participate.

The ARPANET scheme depended on being able to send messages by any available path, so protocols had to be devised to control and monitor data delivery. Use of Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), developed by Vinton Cerf at Stanford University, was important in creating compatibility among a variety of computer equipment. By the early 1980’s, a number of networks had developed, with interconnections following. These interconnections led to the term “Internet.” In 1986, the National Science Foundation (NSF) created NSFNET NSFNET to connect supercomputer sites around the United States. It also connected computers at schools and research sites, and soon NSFNET absorbed the ARPANET.

In 1991, Al Gore, then a U.S. senator from Tennessee, promoted federal legislation that expanded NSFNET, renamed it NREN NREN (National Research and Education Network), and brought it into more schools and colleges. The legislation also allowed businesses to purchase part of the network for commercial uses. Mass commercialization followed. Gore proposed creating a “national information infrastructure” consisting of a telecommunications network, “information appliances” connected to the network, and information stored in digital libraries and databases filled with text images and videos. He argued that rapid advances in telecommunications and computer technology were causing the information and telecommunications industries to converge.

Rapid growth of the Internet required the presence of several elements: readily available terminal devices, networks to link them, user-friendly software, and substantial content. These elements came together in the 1990’s. Although such development could have happened with a telephone or cable television add-on, the key factor was the growth of personal computer (PC) ownership and the connection of PCs to online services. Personal computers Many students were introduced to Internet service through their schools’ computer networks. As it became easier for nonexperts to navigate this information stream, more new users were attracted each year.

Bill Gates, Gates, Bill the founder of Microsoft Corporation, Microsoft Corporation a key computer software provider, has called the Internet’s popularity the single most important development in the computing world since IBM introduced the PC in 1981. In the early days of the Internet, Gates predicted that it would continue to evolve into an increasingly powerful information highway that would forever change the way people buy, work, learn, and communicate.

The Internet is not owned or funded by any one institution, organization, or government; rather, this “organized anarchy” is directed by the Internet Society, Internet Society which works out such issues as standards, resources, and addresses. The computers, routers, and communication links are owned by many parties. By the mid-1990’s, the Internet had evolved into a network composed of millions of host computers, all but a few of them privately maintained. Tens of millions of PC users could roam the “information superhighway” and tap into the vast amounts of data found there, thanks to its ease of use.

The many alternative routing possibilities made it almost impossible to block certain types of information selectively. At the same time, the Internet empowered many groups, because use of the Internet is possible at low cost and users can send messages through various Internet communication services to other users anywhere in the world.

Very quickly, the Internet came to be used for four basic processes: communication (through electronic mail, or e-mail), document or file transfer, interactive browsing, and reading and posting to topic-specific bulletin boards. E-mail became the cornerstone of the Internet; the ability to communicate with others in this unobtrusive but effective and comprehensive way was widely embraced because of the tremendous advantages it provides for both senders and receivers.


In addition to its usefulness for e-mail communication, the Internet came to provide access to large amounts of data on subjects ranging from the trivial to the serious. The Internet became a sort of global bulletin board with the initiation of thousands of topical newsgroups established by users to discuss various issues; messages posted to newsgroups were read, forwarded, and responded to by users all over the world.

Use of the Internet expanded rapidly. One 1995 survey found that 9.5 million people in the United States were using the Internet, including 1.1 million children less than eighteen years of age. Half of these 9.5 million had first begun using the Internet that year. Other estimates indicated even higher numbers, and some suggested that 20 to 30 million computers around the world were connected to the Internet in the mid-1990’s. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network recognized the importance of the rise of the Internet when it began providing a regular program feature called “Internet Minute.”

Companies and individuals found that the ease with which they could place information on the Internet changed the whole idea of what it means to publish. As Internet access became important to businesses, Internet addresses appeared on business cards, in catalogs, and in advertisements. Increasingly, the commercial uses of the Internet became more heavily exploited, and e-commerce of all kinds exploded in importance. Many state governments began to make documents available online, and many political candidates and elected officials began to use e-mail to disseminate voter education materials and for constituent communication.

The World Wide Web, or Web, is a user-friendly “front end” to the information already on the Internet. Tim Berners-Lee, an expert in communications and text-handling programs, wrote the basic Web software while working at the CERN physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1990, and placed it on the Internet the next year. He developed the standards for addressing, linking language, and transferring multimedia documents on the Web. This software provided a protocol for requesting readable information (including text, graphics, figures, and databases) stored on remote computer systems, using networks.

The key to the Web’s success is hypertext, Hypertext which is information that can be stored and retrieved in a nonhierarchical structure. The concept of hypertext had been suggested by computer pioneer Vannevar Bush in 1945. Every hypertext item has an address of its own, meaning one can move from one file to the next through a series of links. The next file accessed through “point-and-click” connections could be halfway around the world. All the technical aspects of moving from one computer to the other are transparent to the user, who can simply explore without interference by using appropriate “browsers,” software that helps the user to find the topic of interest.

Soon after the World Wide Web was developed, many institutions and individuals established Web sites. In late 1995, even the Vatican opened a Web site, with the ultimate intent of making papal messages and Church documents available for downloading by scholars, clerics, and laity around the world. More than one million people visited the Vatican’s Web site during the first two weeks of its existence. When the Internal Revenue Service Internal Revenue Service opened its Web site in early 1996, some 220,000 people visited it during the first twenty-four hours, and more than one million visited in its first week—even before the site’s debut was officially announced.

The protocols that control information transmission on the Internet and the Web have worked exceptionally well, despite rapid growth of usage. The Web has experienced tremendous growth and diversification, becoming a library, marketplace, stage, and funhouse. By 1995, it was the Internet’s center of activity, as thousands of companies, organizations, and individuals set up sites. In two years, the Web grew from 100 to 100,000 sites. By 2000, the number of Web sites had grown to more than 7 million registered domains, and by 2005 to about 46.5 million, although it is impossible to know how many are active at any given time. Tremendous energy and creativity continue to be channeled into the Web, and new kinds of sites appear almost daily. The Internet’s vast possibilities—social, economic, and scientific—promise to continue to revolutionize human society during the twenty-first century. Internet
World Wide Web
Computers;Internet communication

Further Reading

  • Cavalier, Robert J., ed. The Impact of the Internet on Our Moral Lives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Collection of essays examines how various aspects of the Internet and the use of online technology may be affecting cultural and social standards of morality as well as the personal lives of individuals.
  • Diamond, Edwin, et al. “The Ancient History of the Internet.” American Heritage 46, no. 6 (October, 1995): 34-41. Discusses the background of the Internet.
  • Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. The founder of Microsoft discusses his vision of the changes that computer usage can potentially bring to everyday life.
  • Goodman, Danny. Living at Light Speed: Your Survival Guide to Life on the Information Superhighway. New York: Random House, 1994. Explains the operation of the Internet in terms understandable to general readers and discusses potential problems such as fraud and invasion of privacy.
  • Kleinman, Daniel Lee. Science and Technology in Society: From Biotechnology to the Internet. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. Scholarly work addresses the impacts on society of various forms of technological innovation. Chapter 3 is devoted to discussion of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

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