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Last updated on 11/28/19

What is the internet?

Welcome to Understanding the Web! We often talk about the web and the internet without truly understanding what these terms mean. By the end of this course, you’ll be speaking fluently about the internet, the web, clients, servers, and more.

The internet

Let's begin by talking about the internet. The internet is a network of connections between different machines.


The first seeds of the internet were sown by several computer scientists at institutions primarily in the United States in the 1960s. They envisioned something that, at the time, must’ve seemed far-fetched and impossible to fully visualize: a network of machines that could communicate with one another. It would have been even more difficult to imagine a network such that geographic distance would not limit researchers’ access to information stored on other machines around the world.

As one of the prominent researchers, Robert Taylor, explained, he had three different connection terminals- each of which was linked to a different computer miles away. In his words:

"Oh man! It's obvious what to do: If you have these three terminals, there ought to be one terminal that goes anywhere you want to go.”

Robert Taylor, one of the prominent American Internet pioneers
Robert Taylor, one of the prominent American Internet pioneers

There was also a tangential interest in the project from the US military, who at the time was very interested in ways that information could be preserved and still get from point A to point B in case of nuclear attack. Both civilian and military computer scientists were interested in what this network, known as ARPAnet, could allow.

From these first supercomputer projects came other projects by computer scientists such as Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. They created a protocol (a way of exchanging data) called TCP/IP, which you needn't understand for the purposes of this course. The most important thing to remember is that the way we live the internet today is a result of a series of inventions. It didn't all come to be at once! 

The Connections

Now that we have a little more context for this network, what actually connects all of these devices?

Sometimes there are cables that physically connect devices, sometimes there are satellite links that wirelessly connect devices, and more methods are still being created today!

In any case, there are billions and billions of objects connected to the internet. Some are obvious, like your computer, but others are not obvious. "Smart" objects, like connected light controls for your house, are also part of the internet even though they don't have a keyboard or a mouse.

The point is that the internet is being used today to connect all types of things, from humans, to refrigerators, to military supercomputers, and more. Does this seem impressive? That’s because it is, or it’s at least much more impressive than we remember when we’re perusing Facebook for the cute animal video of the day.

How does information on the internet travel, though?

Every tiny piece of data that travels around the internet is made up of a tiny building block called a bit. A bit can be either 1 or 0, otherwise known as binary. The idea of sending information around in this way was revolutionary at the time. 

In the next chapter, we’ll move onto the world wide web. What’s the difference between the web and the internet, and why does it matter? Let's go to the next chapter to find out!

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Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement