The Internet began in the late 1960s as an experiment in the design of robust computer networks. The goal was to construct a network of computers that could withstand the loss of several machines without compromising the ability of the remaining ones to communicate. Funding came from the U.S. Department of Defense, which had a vested interest in building information networks that could withstand nuclear attack.
The resulting network was a marvelous technical success, but it was limited in size and scope. For the most part, only defense contractors and academic institutions could gain access to what was then known as the ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network of the Department of Defense).
With the advent of high-speed modems for digital communication over common phone lines, some individuals and organizations not directly tied to the main digital pipelines began connecting to and taking advantage of the network’s advanced and global communications. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until around 1993 that the Internet really took off.
Several crucial events led to the meteoric rise in popularity of the Internet. First, in the early 1990s, businesses and individuals eager to take advantage of the ease and power of global digital communications finally pressured the largest computer networks on the mostly U.S. government-funded Internet to open their systems for nearly unrestricted traffic. (The network wasn’t designed to route information based on content, meaning that commercial messages went through university computers that at the time forbade such activity.)
True to their academic traditions of free exchange and sharing, many of the original Internet members continued to make substantial portions of their electronic collections of documents and software available to the newcomersfree for the taking! Global communications, a wealth of free software and information: who could resist?
Well, frankly, the Internet was a tough row to hoe back then. Getting connected and using the various software tools, if they were even available for their computers, presented an insurmountable technology barrier for most people. And most available information was plain-vanilla text about academic subjects, not the neatly packaged fare that attracts users to services such as America Online. The Internet was just too disorganized, and, outside of the government and academia, few people had the knowledge or interest to learn how to use the arcane software or the time to spend rummaging through documents looking for ones of interest.