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Because internet service is involved in many aspect of modern life, it’s easy to forget that it began less than a lifetime ago. In the span of about 50 years, the internet evolved from a fledgling network into the World Wide Web we enjoy today.

Humble beginnings

Our internet history lesson begins with the Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite, Sputnik. Cold War tension was fierce, and Americans worried that the Soviet Union might weaponize satellites to destroy their telephone network. In 1962, an ARPA scientist suggested a “galactic network” of computers to ensure government officials had a backup communication method.

The idea stuck. In 1969, ARPAnet went live, connecting just four universities to start. This tiny network was originally intended for government and academic institutions to share data — but it soon grew into something much bigger.

The expanding network

ARPAnet continued to grow as new connections were added around the world. 1982 saw the creation of the EUnet, the world’s first public WAN (wide area network). EUnet offered universities across Europe a valuable connection to the now-international ARPAnet.

It can be difficult to pin down the start of internet service as we know it. Did it happen in 1983 with ARPAnet’s transition to TCP/IP protocols, which allowed separate, local computer networks to connect for the first time? Or did modern internet history begin in 1990, when the ARPAnet was merged with CERN’s new World Wide Web? Prior to this merger, ARPAnet users could only exchange files; the World Wide Web created a centralized, searchable directory of data anyone with a connection could access. 1990 also was the year of the first search engine, Archie.

The web goes worldwide

The World Wide Web went public in 1991, the same year that the Gore Bill dedicated $600 million to the development of the “Information Superhighway.” The rest, as they say, is history. The expanding availability and decreasing cost of bandwidth has made high-speed internet more accessible, with broadband internet service phasing out slower dial-up service — and recently being improved upon by super-fast fiber-optic options. Thanks to the faster, more reliable internet service available today, we can now surf, stream, and shop online to our hearts’ content.

The future of the internet

What does the future of the internet hold? Lots of cool stuff we can’t imagine yet. Our best guess includes the expanding internet of things, a network of web-connected devices ranging from smart thermostats to wearables like fitness trackers. When you combine the internet of things with the developing field of machine learning, futuristic applications like self-driving cars are more attainable than ever. (Just ask Tesla Motors.) Virtual and augmented reality are also likely to play a part in how future generations experience the internet. Will augmented reality wearables like Google Glass catch on? Will it someday become commonplace to have internet-connected microchips implanted in our brains? Only time will tell.