The history of computer networking is complex. It has involved many people from all over the world over the past 35 years. Presented here is a simplified view of how the Internet evolved. The processes of invention and commercialization are far more complicated, but it is helpful to look at the fundamental development.
In the 1940s computers were large electromechanical devices that were prone to failure. In 1947 the invention of a semiconductor transistor opened up many possibilities for making smaller, more reliable computers. In the 1950s large institutions began to use mainframe computers, which were run by punched card programs. In the late 1950s the integrated circuit that combined several, and now millions, of transistors on one small piece of semiconductor was invented. In the 1960s mainframes with terminals and integrated circuits were widely used.
In the late 1960s and 1970s smaller computers called minicomputers were created. However, these minicomputers were still very large by modern standards. In 1977 the Apple Computer Company introduced the microcomputer, which was also known as the Mac. In 1981 IBM introduced its first PC. The user-friendly Mac, the open-architecture IBM PC, and the further micro-miniaturization of integrated circuits led to widespread use of personal computers in homes and businesses.
In the mid-1980s PC users began to use modems to share files with other computers. This was referred to as point-to-point, or dial-up communication. This concept was expanded by the use of computers that were the central point of communication in a dial-up connection. These computers were called bulletin boards. Users would connect to the bulletin boards, leave and pick up messages, as well as upload and download files. The drawback to this type of system was that there was very little direct communication and then only with those who knew about the bulletin board. Another limitation was that the bulletin board computer required one modem per connection. If five people connected simultaneously it would require five modems connected to five separate phone lines. As the number of people who wanted to use the system grew, the system was not able to handle the demand. For example, imagine if 500 people wanted to connect at the same time.
From the 1960s to the 1990s the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) developed large, reliable, wide-area networks (WANs) for military and scientific reasons. This technology was different from the point-to-point communication used in bulletin boards. It allowed multiple computers to be connected together through many different paths. The network itself would determine how to move data from one computer to another. One connection could be used to reach many computers at the same time. The WAN developed by the DoD eventually became the Internet.