There’s a crazy rumor going around saying that the government didn’t do much of anything to create the Internet, and that private industry did it all.

I remember the Internet before the private sector got involved in it. I was there.

The first time I ever used the Internet was probably 1989 or 1990. The World Wide Web didn’t exist yet, but things we now think of as protocols like FTP and IRC existed and were very much in use. I spent a fair bit of time hanging out in Usenet newsgroups, which were basically like a giant forum.

At that time, the Internet was mostly government and higher education. The technology companies who built the equipment it ran on were the only commercial presence you saw. It was kind of cool too, because sometimes you were reading the words of the very people who actually designed the stuff, not the marketers.

Yes, somebody had to build the network cards, switches and routers. And by the time I was using the Internet, the hardware was all being built by companies like 3Com, Digital Equipment Corp., and IBM.

That’s the way the government works. The government doesn’t build airplanes either. They figure out what they want, put out a request for proposal, then select one of the bidders.

Ethernet was invented at Xerox PARC, and TCP/IP happily ran on it. It also happily ran on various other technologies that have fallen by the wayside. Had something else won, TCP/IP would have run on that instead. Ethernet was in the right place at the right time for the Internet to adopt and use, but it could have just as easily been another networking technology.

As someone who has actually studied TCP/IP and had to answer test questions about it, I’m amazed that its creators had so much foresight to design it the way it did. It didn’t “languish” for 30 years. It was so extensible, and so well abstracted from the hardware it used that up until now, there’s been little reason to change any of it. The only reason we’re making any changes to it now is because it became a victim of its own success. When TCP/IP was designed, it had room for 4.3 billion addresses, and in the early 1970s, that was plenty. That was enough for every living person in the world to have a computer on the Internet, an idea that was completely unfathomable at the time.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault that the Internet became commercially successful in the mid 1990s and not before. Numerous companies did various Internet-like things in the 1980s, like AT&T and Compuserve, but they did it independently.

In the 1990s, consumer computer technology started to catch up, and computers that were powerful enough to run TCP/IP and connect directly to the Internet became affordable and plentiful.

That’s not the government’s fault it took that long. It’s private industry’s fault, but if I rewrote history and let the best technology win instead of what really won, I’d really be pushing things to get us to a commercially viable Internet by 1985 or even 1989.

The Internet was a research network because for the first 20 years of its existence, because only governments, universities, and very large companies could afford to connect to it and utilize it–not because the government and academia were somehow asleep at the wheel. They knew what they had. They even built a code of ethics to protect it–RFC 1087–because they had something that was so valuable.

Here’s the introduction. Keep in mind this was written in January 1989.

At great human and economic cost, resources drawn from the U.S. Government, industry and the academic community have been assembled into a collection of interconnected networks called the Internet. Begun as a vehicle for experimental network research in the mid-1970’s, the Internet has become an important national infrastructure supporting an increasingly widespread, multi-disciplinary community of researchers ranging, inter alia, from computer scientists and electrical engineers to mathematicians, physicists, medical researchers, chemists, astronomers and space scientists.

At the time that was written, the cheapest computer that could connect to the Internet and utilize it properly was a $10,000 workstation, probably running some now-obscure version of Unix. But computers that individuals could afford caught up in just a few short years. I didn’t see the Gold Rush of 1849, but what I saw and participated in back in 1994 must have been a lot like it.

It started in academia. I was studying at the University of Missouri-Columbia at the time, and I remember the mad rush in 1994 to take disks to Campus Computing to get copies of WinSLIP. I remember comparing notes with a couple of engineering students, and we puzzled through together how to get a Windows 3.1 machine onto the Internet and helped the rest of our friends get all the pieces working so they could use their 14.4 modems to connect directly to the Internet and run NCSA Mosaic or the brand-spanking-new Netscape 0.9.

At first, there wasn’t a whole lot to look at–but it grew every week. A year later, it seemed normal for a company to have at least a rudimentary web page set up somewhere, even if they didn’t have the appropriate .com address registered yet.

By August 1995, I knew enough HTML to hand-code a web page, and by the time I graduated in 1997, pretty much any freshman was expected to build a web page of some sort during that year.

Those of us who were among the first to install and run Netscape 0.9 graduated in the mid 1990s and got jobs. The companies who hired us asked us to build web pages.

The success of the Internet depended on at least four things: the infrastructure originally designed by the government, computers and networking equipment to connect to it, colleges to train people on how to use it, and private industry to hire them.

Private industry made two of those four things happen, but wouldn’t have been able to get the other two on its own. And the reason is really simple. AT&T built an Internet-like service in 1983, and shut it down after a couple of years. It worked fine, but it wasn’t profitable. It was too far ahead of its time. The Internet predated that by a decade, but survived until private industry was ready for it because the government and academia didn’t need to profit from it right away.

Saying otherwise is bad history. It’s also disrespectful to the pioneers who made it happen.