Who Really Invented the Internet

If you throw out the question, “who invented the internet,” it’s likely you’d get a half dozen wrong answers including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and IBM. You’d probably also hear a joke or two about Al Gore. 

For a while, it was popular to give the free market all the credit. However, despite claims that privatization is solely responsible for the invention of the internet, such as by Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz, it appears that government programs headed by some brilliant minds are actually responsible. 

The Government’s Contribution

According to a Los Angeles Times article written by expert Michael Hiltzik, “the Internet as we know it was indeed born as a government project. In fact, without ARPA (a government program) and Bob Taylor (who funded the ARPANet as a top official at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA), it could not have come into existence. Private enterprise had no interest in something so visionary and complex, with questionable commercial opportunities.”

Hiltzik wrote a book about the importance of Xerox’s contribution to technology and its invention of a graphic interface that was indeed a precursor to the internet, but denies that Xerox is primarily responsible–even though Crovitz erroneously cited Hiltzik’s book in an effort to support his point.

Hiltzik went on to write that the “private corporation that then owned monopoly control over America’s communications network, AT&T fought tooth and nail against the ARPANet. Luckily for us, a far-sighted government agency prevailed.”

He continued, “It’s true that the Internet took off after it was privatized in 1995. But to be privatized, first you have to be government-owned. It’s another testament to people often demeaned as ‘government bureaucrats’ that they saw that the moment had come to set their child free.”

While it might be more romantic to imagine a couple of young entrepreneurs inventing away in their parent’s garage and creating something that would change our lives forever, it was the structure available in government that made the joining together of all the great minds and the various contributing inventions over the years possible. Many smaller discoveries made the internet possible.

What About Al Gore?

When Al Gore talked about being responsible for creating the internet, he didn’t mean he actually invented it. Perhaps his words were poorly chosen, and it did haunt his political career ever-after, but what he seems to have meant was that he was a driving force behind the legislation that made the internet possible. 

There are too many steps to cover all of them, but here’s what two of the most important contributors, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf–the latter is often referred to as the father of the internet–had to say about Al Gore, according to Snopes.com:

“Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development.

No one person or even small group of persons exclusively “invented” the internet. It is the result of many years of ongoing collaboration among people in government and the university community. But as the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work, we would like to acknowledge VP Gore’s contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time.”

Basically, no one person was responsible for the internet. Xerox helped with the invention of the first ethernet. 

We know that, as reported by USA Today, “On Oct. 29, 1969, Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at UCLA, and his graduate student Charley Kline wanted to send a transmission from UCLA’s computer to another computer at Stanford Research Institute through ARPANET, the precursor to what we now know as the internet.” They only managed the first two letters, but still. That was a huge step.

We also know Robert Kahn, Bob, Taylor, and Vinton Cerf were huge contributors. But without the government forming task groups and programs, it’s likely the internet as we know it today would’ve taken much longer to develop, if ever.