Internet History: The Story of Domain Names
What Is a Domain Name?
Internet domain names For those who don’t know, Its essentially a label. It describes the specific location of a file on internet servers.
Domain names, though, are broken down into a few pieces. To help make it easier, consider the domain name of this article:
When you type this URL into your web browser, the program knows exactly what to do. It finds the first “dot” and reads what’s to the right.
In this case, it’s “.com.”
This is one of many top-level-domains (TLDs), which point browsers to the region of the Internet where the data is stored. From there, it works to the left, meaning it would then find internetadvisor. Once inside the Internet Advisor “folder” (it’s not really a folder, but it helps to think about it this way for visualization purposes), it will then look for the file associated with the name “the story of domain names.”
Depending on where the text falls in the domain name, it can refer to one specific location on the Internet (known as an IP address) or a collection of addresses, as is the case when you think of “internetadvisor” as a subdomain. There are many different assets associated with that particular domain name, which can be accessed with even more specific labels.
All of the rules surrounding domain names, their creation, and their use, are governed by the Domain Name System (DNS), which has served as an important backbone for the entire Internet since its inception in 1983.
Now that you’re clear about what a domain name is, here’s the complete history of domain names.
The History of Internet Domain Names
The story of how internet domain names became such an important part of our daily lives begins in the early days of the Internet, as the implementation of the Domain Name System (DNS) was integral to taking the internet mainstream.
Below, we’ve outlined all the key moments in internet history and detailed the specific development that led to the creation and propagation of domain names.
1950s and 1960s – The Early Days of the Internet
Most people tend to think that the Internet is something that was “invented” just twenty or thirty years ago. While it’s true, the Internet did finally go mainstream in the late 1990s; this was the result of decades of work that began in the 1950s. Yes, you read the right.
Specifically, in 1958, the United States Department of Defense issued Directive 5105.15. In doing so, it created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was intended to develop and implement a communications network that could not be disrupted by an attack, particularly by the Soviet Union, the nation with which the US had become locked into a quasi-conflict known as The Cold War.
In 1965, researchers in Massachusetts and California managed to connect two computers and use them to communicate, creating the first-ever Wide Area Network (WAN). The technology improved – mainly with the advent of packet switching – and more and more computers were added to ARPA’s network, which was known simply as ARPAnet.
This primitive system was the foundation for today’s Internet, and it laid the groundwork for the introduction of domain names into our connected world.
1972 – Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) Created
Each computer connected to the ARPAnet had a specific number, known as an address. Users needed the address to connect with it and access the information it was storing.
However, the network’s growth in the years after 1965 meant the number of addresses created to point people to specific file locations on the network had become long, complicated, and difficult to remember, significantly reducing its practicality to users.
Seeing that the Internet was headed for much more mainstream use, it became clear that a new system was needed, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) created and funded the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
The purpose of this organization was to standardize the naming system of computers connected on the network and ensure that each one had a unique number. These numbers were the backbone of the internet protocol (IP) system. This made domain names the realistic choice as the system that would organize the Internet and help make it something much more accessible to the general public.
1983 – Internet Domain Name System (DNS) Conceived
After a decade or more of growth in the number of internet users worldwide, it became clear to those working closely on its development that a new system of organization was needed. In response and building on previous research that came out of the University of California at Berkeley, Paul Mockapetris “invented” the Domain Name System, laying the groundwork for how it should look and be implemented but without actually creating a system that could be used.
This work proved to be the foundation for what would come in the following few years, the implementation of a system of internet organization based on domain names that could be much more easily understood and used by humans, not numbers, which are much more appropriate for computers.
1984 – First “Name Server” Created at University of Wisconsin
The formation of the IP system made it much easier for the Internet to grow, and throughout the 1970s, that’s exactly what happened. But the Internet was still something used exclusively amongst a small group of academics and computer programmers. In 1984, though, things would change considerably when researchers at the University of Wisconsin unveiled their “name server.”
This technology made it possible to convert text into an IP address, which meant that users did not need to know these long and complicated numbers that, although simplified compared to prior, were still too cumbersome to be practical.
Such a significant breakthrough marked the beginning of a new chapter in internet and domain name history, bringing us much closer to the reality we share today.
1985 – The First Top Level Domains (TLDs) Created
The development of the “name server” was a massive first step, but it needed more for the Domain Name System to really take off. Enter the top-level domains.
As mentioned earlier, TLDs are what comes after the first “dot” and are the initial indicator your browser reads when it sets out to locate a file stored somewhere on the Internet.
Knowing that lots of different groups, organizations, and individuals would want to register their domain name, this first batch of TLDs was created with a specific system in mind.
Over time, the requirements surrounding the TLDs were relaxed. For example, you no longer need to be a for-profit company to get a “.com” domain, and “.org” is no longer reserved for non-profit groups, though many people still make this distinction.
Nevertheless, by defining these extensions, the Domain Name System was officially ready to be implemented and take the internet mainstream, which it did very soon after these TLDs were announced.
1985 – The First Domain Name – Symbolics.com – is Registered
Shortly after the first TLDs were created and announced, the first domain name (as we understand them today) was created. A software company by the same name registered Symbolics.com.
This domain name launched a new era, though it was acting almost entirely alone in the early days. Only five more companies joined Symbolics in registering a domain name that year; their chosen domains were bbn.com, think.com, mcc.com, dec.com, and northrop.com, making these the first websites on the Internet as we now know and understand it.
1986 – The Major Companies Catch On
After 1985, a year in which saw the first six domain names registered, the world’s major corporations began catching on and started registering their own domain names. From 1986-1987, big companies such as GE, IBM, General Motors, Bell Atlantic, AT&T, Intel, HP, and more, all registered domain names for their companies. This signaled that the Domain Name System was likely going to be how the Internet went mainstream, setting the stage for the revolution that would begin just a decade later.
1989 – Launch of The World Wide Web Project
With the Domain Name System now fully established, the Internet was on the precipice of widespread adoption. The final push was about to come as Tim Berners-Lee made his way to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN, per its letters in French) to begin working on what was known as the World Wide Web project.
The goal of this project was to create a system that would allow the Internet to go mainstream, and its result was a network in which data was stored on servers and identified by URLs (Uniform Resource Locators). These URLs, which we all recognize today, were designed around the domain name system.
The World Wide Web brought together the many different aspects of internet construction that had been going on up until this point. Its final piece, the web browser, officially launched the internet revolution.
1991 – Tim Berners-Lee Invents the First Web Browser
Two years after arriving at CERN, Berners-Lee unveiled the world’s first web browser – WorldWideWeb. We all use browsers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge, etc. every day, but when this first one was launched, it was a pinnacle moment in the early history of the Internet.
Essentially, a web browser is a computer program that allows people to access the information stored on the Internet. It uses URLs, which look like regular words and letters (domain names) but which actually represent numbers tied to a specific server location, to find and present information to the end-user.
The invention of the web browser changed everything. The Internet was now viable as a mainstream service, and it didn’t take long for a massive transformation to occur. Commercial internet service providers had been allowed to operate since 1989, and after WorldWideWeb came Mosaic, followed shortly by Netscape, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and so much more.
Without the web browser, the Internet as we know it today would not exist, and there would not be anywhere as much need or demand for domain names. But the web browser does exist, and it’s had a tremendous impact on our world.
1993 – The World Wide Web is open-sourced
Initially, only a proprietary CERN project, the research institute, released the World Wide Web on April 30, 1993, for public use. This allowed more people to build servers to store information, meaning more computers could connect, and the Internet could grow. To give you an idea of how immediate all of this was, consider that by the end of 1993, less than eight months after the release of the World Wide Web, more than 500 web servers had been established. By 1994, there were 10,000 servers and 10 million users.
The internet revolution had begun!
1995 – Domain Registration is No Longer Free
Although the concept of domain names had been around since the early 1980s (or perhaps even earlier), few domain names were registered in the early days; we mentioned that just six were registered in the first year the DNS system was put into place.
However, after the World Wide Web’s unveiling and the invention of the web browser, things changed. Domain names were integral to the URL system used by the web, and the Internet was about to explode. As a result, domain registration also grew considerably in 1993 and 1994.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, considering the growth going on, regulations were changed in 1995, and domain names were no longer offered for free. Up until this moment, anyone who wanted a domain name simply had to do so. But the US Federal government, seeking to privatize the infrastructure it had funded to create the Internet, awarded the company Network Solutions with the ability to manage domain name registration and charge for it.
In the beginning, it cost around $100 for a two-year subscription for a domain name.
1998 – ICANN is Formed and Tasked With Managing the DNS
During the Clinton administration, which sought to privatize the Internet further, the Department of Commerce, tried to transition its responsibility as overseer of the DNS to a private entity. Still, this move was met with heavy criticism.
The response was the formation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This independent, not-for-profit organization does the work of the US government on a contractual basis.
2003 – The Truth in Domain Names Act is Passed
As the Internet grew and domain names became an increasingly important part of the system, the need to protect people also arose. Several regulations passed in this spirit, but the most relevant to domain names was the Truth in Domain Names Act. This prevented website owners from using domain names similar in spelling to other names to divert users to sites containing pornographic material. This was an important development in the fight to keep the Internet a safe space.
2013 – There Are No More 4-Letter Domains
A quick lesson in probability reveals that there are 456,976 different combinations of four letters. By 2013, less than ten years after the Internet really went mainstream, all of these domain names were registered. This makes sense, but it’s also strange to think someone out there truly wanted uqap.com!
2014 – Hundreds of new TLDs are Released
In the early days, there were just six top-level domains to choose from, but in 2014, things started to change. With more custom domain names, ICANN installed hundreds of new generic top-level domains, ranging from biz and info to blue and xxx.
Also, by this time, some of the restrictions placed on the original TLDs, such as reserving “.org” for non-profit institutions, were lifted, allowing people to more freely choose the TLD they wanted for their website. Country code TLDs – “.co.uk”, “.es”, “.fr”, “.de” had also become quite popular by this time.
New TLDs are added all the time, and pretty much anyone can sponsor the creation of a new one as long as it follows the rules and regulations set out by ICANN and
2016 – ICANN’s Contract with US Government Ends
The initial contract between ICANN and the US government ended in September 2016. ICANN is still responsible for managing the DNS and other important aspects of internet infrastructure, but it now does so on behalf of a global, multi-stakeholder institution. This makes sense, as the Internet is no longer just something happening in the United States but also worldwide.
2020 366.8 Million Domain Names Are Registered
The most recent data, which comes from the first quarter in 2020, shows that there are 366.8 million registered domain names across all TLDs. This represents a 1.2 percent increase from the year before, indicating that the Internet, and the domain names we use to access it, are still just as popular as ever.
The Future of Domain Names
The history of domain names is closely tied to the history of the Internet. Without them, and the entire DNS, the Internet as we know it today would not exist. However, what will happen next is anyone’s guess. The current system and infrastructure appears to be working, but will that continue to be the case moving forward? The biggest concern most have is privacy and freedom.
The Internet has become intertwined with nearly everything we do, and control over it would provide someone with immense power. The systems we currently have in place, including the DNS, help keep the Internet free. Still, if history is a guide, we will need to remain vigilant to protect these systems and keep the Internet the wonderful resource it is today.
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