Digital communications in the form of telegraph in the 19th century, and radio and telephone in the 20th, set the stage for the Internet. The launch of the Russians’ Sputnik in 1957, the first man-made satellite, not only began the Space Age, but also opened the door to the realization that communications could be world-wide and almost instantaneous.

In response, our government created the Advanced Research Projects Agency with the goal of becoming the leading force in science and new technologies. The first experimental network was called ARPANET.

The Internet (an inter-connection of net-works) grew out of visionaries in the early 1960s. They realized that there was great potential value in allowing computers to connect and share information, both in commercial and military applications. After a slow start, over the next several decades, the Net quickly grew.

In 1990, a system was designed to simplify navigation on the Internet. This system became known as the World Wide Web (hence WWW). Soon people were mistakenly identifying the Internet and the Web as identical. The Internet is a world-wide interconnection of networks; the World Wide Web is a way to navigate the networks. In aeronautical terms, it’s like comparing the sky to a plane.

Early on, there were no home or office personal computers, and anyone using the Net had to learn a very complex system. Most users were the military, universities and computer scientists. Then, as computers became more plentiful and affordable, and the Internet became much easier to access using the Web, businesses soon realized the incredible potential, and by 1994, Internet commerce started to boom. Within a few years, a huge majority of computers were sold with operating systems that incorporated the Web.

The use of phone modems spread widely for a while, but they much were much too slow to carry multimedia, such as sound and video, except in very low quality. Consumer demand soon drove the development of new, much faster technologies, such as cable modems and Digital Subscriber Lines. The use of these devices caused an explosion of data on the Net. Many websites crashed and had to be redesigned in order to handle the increase in traffic.

Wireless use grew rapidly into this century, and travelers searched for Wi-Fi “hot spots” where they could connect while they are away from home or office. Many airports, coffee bars, hotels and motels now routinely offer these services, some for a fee and some free. Smartphones can connect to the Net using cell networks, which are somewhat slower than Wi-Fi, but are more widely accessible.

A next big growth area is the surge towards universal wireless access, where almost everywhere is a “hot spot.” This would provide high speed Internet access to millions of people now without it. Municipal Wi-Fi or city-wide access, wiMAX offering broader ranges than Wi-Fi, 4g, LTE, and other formats will compete for dominance in the years ahead. This battle has enormous consequences, both economic and political.

Another trend that is rapidly challenging web designers is the growth of smaller mobile devices to connect to the Internet. Tablets, pocket PCs, smart phones, ebooks, game machines, and even watches are now capable of tapping into the Net on the go, and many websites are not designed to work on that scale. So, the Net is continuously expanding and evolving in order to handle more and more traffic.

As the Internet becomes more universal, faster, and increasingly accessible, social networking and cooperative services have grown and will continue to expand rapidly, enabling people to communicate and share interests in ways we can’t even imagine. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, YouTube and Instagram, to name only a few, let people of all ages rapidly share their thoughts, photos and/or videos with others everywhere.

Today, the Internet is much more complex than ever before. It interconnects computers, satellites, mobile devices, GPSs and other gadgets together in a massive network millions of times more intricate than the original ARPANET.

The Internet has revolutionized communications around the world like nothing before in history. Its impact on society has been likened to the invention of the printing press. The Net represents a great example of the benefits of sustained joint government and commercial investment and commitment to research and development.

It all began with Sputnik, a small silver beeping ball, heard world-wide, that orbited the Earth less than 60 years ago.

We’ve come a long way, baby!

Those who would like to ask me questions about science topics may e-mail inquiries to lynn@thesylvaherald.com.

Marcus Goodkind, a retired aerospace engineer, worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a manager at Kennedy Space Center on all the manned programs from Mercury to Shuttle, including Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing.