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The Internet at 40

Sometime this month or next, the Internet will celebrate its 40th birthday. It was in the late summer of 1969 that engineers from UCLA, GTE, Honeywell and various government agencies hooked up two computers the size of telephone booths to form the first computer network.

The exact date depends on who you talk to and what you consider to be the defining moment. Some say it was September 2, when the two machines were connected; others point to October 29, when a message was sent via the network from UCLA to a node at the Stanford Research institute in Palo Alto, CA. Perhaps Leonard Kleinrock, a member of the engineering team, puts it best when he says:  "If September 2 was the day the Internet took its first breath, we like to say October 29 was the day the infant Internet said its first words."

Within a year, the network had expanded from a few west coast colleges to the eastern seaboard, and by the mid-70s the network had gone international. With e-mail and file transfer features being added to the Internet – or the ARPAnet as it was called back then – it actually became a useful work tool rather than just an experiment in computing power and versatility.

It wasn't until the late 80s that commercial interests were allowed to piggy-back a system that was exclusively the domain of government and educational institutions. In 1989, an English physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, wrote a proposal for linking information via the Internet through "a web of nodes", and soon after the World Wide Web was born.

The terms "Internet" and "World Wide Web" are often used synonymously but that's incorrect. The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks, while the World Wide Web is effectively an application that runs on the Internet.

How big have the Internet and the Web become? According to the latest survey by Netcraft, an Internet services company based in Bath, England, there are now over 226 million web sites.  It's impossible to accurately measure the total number of web pages hosted by those sites but companies like Netcraft and Yahoo! have variously estimated the total at between 50 and 150 billion!

Perhaps the scariest thing about today's Internet is the still-unrealized potential. "The Internet has just reached its teenage years, " says Kleinrock, now a professor of computer science at UCLA. "It's just beginning to flex its muscles." Sean Koehl, a technology evangelist in Intel's Corporation's Intel Labs research unit, agrees: "[The Internet] really has been mostly text-based since its inception," he said. "There have been some graphics and animation, but bringing lifelike 3-D environments onto the web is really only just beginning."

Happy birthday, Internet!    

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