If I asked you who invented the airplane. You would likely say the Wright Brothers.
If I asked you who invented the telephone. You would likely say Alexander Graham Bell.
If I asked you who invented the light bulb. You would likely say Thomas Edison (although some have argued convincingly against this in recent years).
The point is, with big inventions we usually have a clear creator behind them that we can point to and say, “he or she is responsible for this great innovation.”
Undoubtedly one of the biggest innovations of the past hundred years (if not the single biggest) is the internet. Nevertheless, if you were to ask all of the people you know who use the internet every day, who invented the internet, you would likely be hard pressed to find anyone who would give you the correct answer (that is, unless they turned to the internet for help -- and one cannot help but grin at that irony).
Sure, some might jokingly say that Al Gore said that he invented the internet. It is no secret that his political opponents have been using that line against him for decades, but the truth is, that is not exactly what he said. The line in question came from an interview he was doing while campaigning in 1999 for the 2000 Presidential Election. What he said was, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth, and environmental protection, improvements in our education system.” In other words, what he was saying is that he helped forward the progress of many legislative initiatives — education, environment, economy, and yes, the internet. The internet did become mainstream under the Clinton-Gore administration after all.
All of that being said, no, Al Gore did not invent the internet (nor did he claim to).
Before we answer the question of who did invent the internet, I want us to momentarily reflect on how incredible the internet actually is. I began this by mentioning the airplane, the telephone, and the light bulb. All of which were world changing innovations in their own right. One takes us around the world, one helps us communicate with one another, and one has the power to enlighten the world, so to speak. If you think about it, the internet can do all of these things and more. And all of this makes it that much more surprising that the inventor of the internet is not more of a household name.
The fact of the matter is that most great inventions are not all of a sudden created, they are oftentimes the result of years of progress, with many different people adding different components or elements along the way. The invention of the internet was no different. When others begin their discussion of the history of the internet they oftentimes begin with the first computers and then move on from there. I, on the other hand, like to go back a bit further…
In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the study and practice of alchemy was at the forefront of the scientific revolution that was occurring in Europe. In fact the most famous name in science was also an avid practitioner. That is to say, Sir Isaac Newton was not only the highly esteemed scientist known for being struck upon the head by a falling apple, which led to his “discovery” of gravity, but he was also a practicing alchemist.
In our current day and age, alchemy is considered a pseudoscience. As a field of study and practice, its main pursuit was to turn base metals such as lead into gold, thus giving the alchemist an unlimited well of riches. And what is more, many alchemists (including Newton) associated the practice with God and the divine, and as a result they believed that through their “science” they could transcend this world and live forever.
No alchemist ever demonstrated that their science could do such things — turn base metals into gold or grant the practitioner immortality — and therefore it was declared not to be a real science.
Let us move forward about four centuries, and once again one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the age also seemed to be involved in what many at the time considered to be “fake science.” That is, one can imagine that in the early 20th century when Nikola Tesla said that in the not too distant future there would be wireless communication spread throughout the world, that many people must have looked at him like he was talking sorcery. Nevertheless we are fortunate enough to be alive in the future Tesla envisioned, and we can understand the very real science behind what he meant. The point is, what may seem impossible or “fake” at one time can be very much possible and “real” at another.
Now let us connect this all back to the invention of the internet. Alchemy became discredited in the scientific community after it failed to to turn base metal into never ending riches. Interestingly enough, the science behind the internet can be seen in similar terms -- turning base metal into gold. I will explain what I mean by this in a moment. For now let us look at how the internet was brought into being.
In the early 1960’s two computer scientists separately outlined their ideas about a global communication network of computers. In 1961, Leonard Kleinrock, wrote a paper entitled, “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets,” and in 1963, J.C.R. Licklider outlined his vision for a “galactic network” of computers which would be “an electronic commons open to all.”
During the same decade, Paul Baran and Donald Davies created "packet-switching" which is an incredibly efficient way of transmitting blocks of data over a digital network.
By the end of the decade, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), where Licklider worked, funded the ARPANET. The ARPANET was the internet before the internet, and was constructed based on Kleinrock’s and Licklider’s visions using Baran's and Davies' "packet-switching" data-routing method.
As the ARPANET grew, it needed to adopt certain protocols (i.e. rules) to follow in order to connect networks together efficiently. These protocols manage the inter-networking. (Get it?)
It is at this point in history when the “internet” is officially invented. In 1974, Bob Kahn from ARPA and Vint Cerf from Stanford laid the groundwork for the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, otherwise known as TCP/IP, which provides the parameters within which data is communicated across the network.
By the mid-1980’s, thanks to the widespread adoption of TCP/IP in combination with the new Domain Name System, which replaced computer code with human language in website addresses, and the internet was born.
I began this post by pointing out how the inventor(s) of the internet are not common, household names. In fact, according to an article on History.com appropriately entitled, “Who Invented the Internet?” It is stated that “it is impossible to credit the invention of the internet to a single person.” What is meant by that is that the internet was built over many decades by many people. There was no single inventor, they are correct; however, their reason for saying that is incorrect. That is to say, there was not a single inventor of the internet, they are right; rather, it was two. As I already said it was Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf who came up with the “internet” protocols, so by definition they are the inventors the internet. In fact, when you ask Google who invented the internet, its answer is clear: Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf.
What is more, these inventors are so often overlooked that in a connecting article on History.com entitled “The Invention of the Internet,” Kahn’s name is not even mentioned at all.
I believe that the reason that Kahn and Cerf do not get the credit that they deserve for their invention is because when we think of the internet, we do not think of their protocols, what we think of is web pages and the World Wide Web.
For the inventor of the World Wide Web we need to look elsewhere. A Swiss computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in March of 1989, when he laid out his vision for the web in a document entitled "Information Management: a Proposal." Berners-Lee published the first web page in December of 1990. What is more, he even coined the phrase "World Wide Web" changing it from the “Mesh” which was his initial choice.
Berners-Lee is the clear and undisputed inventor of the World Wide Web, and has been recognized the world over for his amazing technological achievements. In fact, in 2004, Queen Elizabeth knighted him for his contributions to humanity. Nonetheless, I do not believe his name is as well known in America as it should be.
Furthermore, not only did Berners-Lee invent the World Wide Web, he invented HTML, the hypertext markup language that is the basis for practically everything that is displayed on our web browsers.
In 2008, at the World Wide Web Consortium, Berners-Lee described his mindset during his creation of the web, saying, “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and Domain Name System and ta-da! - the World Wide Web.”
So now we know who invented the Internet and who invented the World Wide Web, but what does any of this have to do with alchemy?
Let us take a closer look at the stated goals of alchemy and compare them with the purpose and backend functionality of the internet. Alchemy set out to turn base metals into gold (i.e. unlimited riches). If you think about it, that could be used to describe the internet in a manner of speaking.
What is it that connects computers together to do all of this inter-networking? It is semi-conductors that make our computers function, and the primary material in these semi-conductors is Silicon. Silicon is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, and in alchemical terms could be considered the base metal that is transformed into unlimited riches. For the internet has provided seemingly unlimited opportunities for people, to follow their dreams and become exceedingly wealthy in a way that was hitherto impossible.
Furthermore, alchemy also claimed to be a way to achieve immortality. What you should know is that futurists like Ray Kurzweil — a man who has made over 147 technological predictions over the past few decades and has been proven correct over 86 percent of the time — said that by 2045 the singularity will occur. This is a moment where humans will be able to merge with machine and live on forever in digital form. Looking at immorality through this lens, one can see how during one period of time something can appear to be pseudo-science, while at another time in a different light and context, it can seem very much real.
I do not know if Leonard Kleinrock, J.C.R Licklider, Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, or Tim Berners-Lee ever thought of themselves as alchemists — my guess is probably not — nonetheless, they have collectively achieved the seemingly impossible and done what Sir Isaac Newton could only dream of in his alchemical pursuits. Together these men invented what we understand today as the “internet.” I wrote this post because much like Newton I finally understand the gravity of this Apple that sits before me.