Throwback Thursday: What did the internet look like in 1990?

Throwback Thursday: What did the internet look like in 1990?

It doesn't need to be repeated that technological advancement has exploded in the last 50 years, but it has come farther than many realize. Learn about the major players on the internet in 1990, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), CERN, and Minitel. Dive into the development of the World Wide Web (WWW) and the invention of web browsers. Get a fascinating glimpse into the early days of the internet and how it has evolved into the vast network we know today.

A network map of the USA from 1984, showing many points of network presence for various affiliates of CSNET.
CSNET, ARPANET network map, 1984. source:

Well, it was small

Expensive and Inaccessible Standards

In 1990, the internet was far from the ubiquitous force it is today. One major barrier to its widespread accessibility was the expensive and inaccessible nature of standards documents. International organizations like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) published costly documents that hindered technical progress. These documents were essential for establishing and maintaining the standards that governed the internet, but charging such a fee created a significant barrier to entry for most organizations.

Another hindrance to internet accessibility was the issue of copyright protection for these standards documents. While copyright protection was argued as a valid reason for making them more widely available, the ITU had an indeterminate legal basis for asserting copyright on standards. This created a challenge in making these documents accessible to a broader audience.

ARPANET becomes the internet, the year is 1983

On January 1, 1983, ARPANET, the US research network, finally switched to the TCP/IP protocol. This serves as the start of the modern internet as we know it, as this standard enabled new networks to connect to the internet much more easily. The internet was now able to grow and scale as more network operators connected to it. While ARPANET was decommissioned in 1990, it basically was the internet for nearly 7 years. The first internet backbone, known as NSFNET, replaced ARPANET a few years after introducing TCP/IP services in 1986.

A network map, showing the USA and the different connections and locations where NSFNET was present in 1992.
NSFNET Network diagram from 1992. source:

Reliable Production Service and Network Support at SWITCH

In contrast to the limited accessibility of the internet, organizations like SWITCH were focused on providing a reliable production service and network support. SWITCH, the Swiss research network, offered services that supported TCP/IP, X.400 over OSI, and DECnet. Their commitment to reliability and support played a crucial role in the development and expansion of the internet during this time.

CERN as a Major Center for High-Energy Physics and Networking

CERN, the European physics laboratory, stood as one of the major centers for the study of high-energy physics in the world. With a large network, CERN played a significant role in the development and advancement of networking technologies. Their contributions helped shape the internet into the global network we know today.

Overall, the internet was far from the accessible and interconnected entity it is today. Limited accessibility, copyright protection issues, outdated technology, and a lack of computer literacy were just some of the barriers that hindered the widespread adoption and accessibility of the internet. However, organizations like the Czech Technical University, SWITCH, and CERN made strides in overcoming these obstacles and laying the groundwork for the internet's future expansion.

A Minitel device from 1990, consisting of a keyboard, number pad, command keys, and a screen.
"Minitel à clavier alphabétique" by zigazou76 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Emergence of Information Services and Internet Availability

Useful services and widespread use of Minitel in France

In 1990, the internet was still in its early stages, with limited accessibility. However, there were other information services that were widely used, such as Minitel in France. Minitel was a videotex system that provided useful services to over 3 million homes. Users could access a variety of information, including news, weather updates, and even online shopping. It was a precursor to the internet and played a significant role in the dissemination of information.

Conversion and availability of Blue Book standards

During this time, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) developed a set of standards known as the Blue Book. These standards were crucial for the advancement of technology, but they were expensive and inaccessible. However, through a research grant from Sun Microsystems, the Blue Book standards were converted and made available on the internet. This conversion process was challenging and required hand editing, but it marked a significant step forward in making standards more widely accessible.

You can learn more and access the Blue Book on ITU's site here:

Government and educational involvement in the internet

While initially created for military communication, the internet had expanded to include all types of institutions by the 1990s. Educational and governmental orgs recognized the potential of the internet and actively participated in its development and growth. The internet had become a vital tool for sharing information and fostering collaboration among various sectors. Higher education organizations had embraced networking technology and worked hard to expand upon it.

A heavily worn partially-removed sticker on a laptop. The header reads "CERN European Organization for Nuclear (...cut off)". There is a note written in marker reading "This machine is a ser(ver). DO NOT POWER (IT) DOWN!!
"First WWW server" by o.tacke is marked with CC0 1.0.

Rapid growth and invention of WWW protocol

By 1990, the internet was experiencing rapid growth, with over 100,000 servers already in operation, and accessible to over 3 million people. It was only months prior in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (WWW) protocol, which revolutionized the way we access and navigate the internet. Web browser applications emerged, providing users with a user-friendly interface to access web pages. Domain names and search engines were also developed to enhance the accessibility and discoverability of web pages. The internet was evolving rapidly, setting the stage for the digital age we know today.

User Experience and Development of Access Tools

Introduction of domain names for easier accessibility

As the internet grew in popularity, the need for a more user-friendly way to access web pages became apparent. This led to the introduction of domain names. Domain names are unique identifiers that represent specific websites or web pages. Instead of typing in a lengthy IP address, users could simply enter a domain name into their web browser to access a particular site. This made it much easier for users to remember and access their favorite websites.

Future development of search engines to aid web page discovery

With the rapid expansion of the internet, the sheer volume of information available became overwhelming. This gave rise to the need for search engines to help users find specific web pages. In the next decade, search engines like Google and Yahoo were developed to index and organize the vast amount of information on the internet. These search engines utilized complex algorithms to deliver relevant search results based on user queries. They revolutionized the way users discovered and accessed information on the internet, making it more convenient and efficient.

Overall, the user experience and development of access tools in the early days of the internet played a crucial role in shaping the way we interact with the web today. The advent of open technologies and standards pushed the open source community to become what it is today.

The internet is accessible to you right now, probably in more than one way: your phone, computer, tablet, game console, 'Alexa' speaker, Smart TV, car, even your stove might have Wi Fi. In less than 40 years, the internet has gone from a few universities conducting research to being everywhere. Time will tell whether or not this was a mistake.

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