Who created the Internet?

by joly

[The following is copied verbatim from forcesofgeek.com]
Who created the Internet?

It still boggles my mind that, 10 years after poor Al Gore kinda sorta lost a crucial presidential election, I still hear the same joke reverberating down the hallways of history. “Hey look at me. I’m Al Gore. I invented the Internets.”

Everyone laughs, of course, because the idea of one person creating something as vast as the Internet is patently ridiculous.

The fact that Gore never made any such claim usually gets overlooked in the hilarity.

In serious discussions about the Internet’s origins, computer scientists Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee usually receive the honors, for their work at DARPA and the foundation of the World Wide Web Foundation, respectively.

They obviously deserve the recognition they receive for their genuinely world-changing work. However, the Internet is a highly conceptual invention, as much cultural construct as technological breakthrough. It wouldn’t be possible without political support, infrastructure, funding, maintenance, and an unbelievable amount of incredibly hard work. Without the concept, though, we couldn’t even manage to put the first two building blocks in place.

So who deserves the credit?

Jules Verne, of course.
That’s right, one of the two true fathers of science fiction first conceived of a vast network of home communication/ information machines in 1863, well over a hundred years before the concept of the computer was popularized. The man who came up with the concept of submarine warfare, lunar travel, and heavier-than-air flight is also one of the inventors of information technology. There wasn’t even a word for “information technology,” but there it is. It was his second novel.

The telephone wouldn’t even be patented for another 13 years. Vannevar Bush, one of IT’s great visionaries, wouldn’t even conceive of the Memex—the conceptual model for the PC—until 1945.

There’s literally no analogy I can come up with that does this justice, but I’ll make one up anyway. It’s like a caveman seeing a maple seed and thinking “Oh crap! Sikorsky S-67 Blackhawk attack helicopters!”

It gets even weirder of course.

The novel wasn’t a hit. In fact, it wasn’t even published until 1994, which is to say five years after Tim Berners-Lee officially created the World Wide Web. Jules Verne invented the internet and no one knew about it for 131 years. What the crap?

Here’s the sad story. Verne wasn’t an established novelist yet, and his publisher refused the text out of hand, saying that it could ruin Verne’s reputation. His first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, was a fanciful and somewhat trendy adventure. Paris in the 20th Century, in contrast, was a dark and brooding novel about the death of culture, financial ruin, ecological disaster, and essentially the death of all hope. The death of all hope is less than marketable.


Adding insult to injury, though, Verne’s publisher also said that the book was “too unbelievable.” Keeping in mind that Verne would not establish his trope of speculative fiction that borders on prophecy for years, here’s a nice short list of other things he predicted in this one unpublished novel alone:

  • Skyscrapers
  • Mechanical Calculators
  • Air conditioning (which, by the way, changed the world in its own right)
  • High-speed rail travel
  • The electric chair
  • The automobile (The invention that defined America in the latter 20th century)
  • Television

Also: The mass production of culture, the current academic Humanities crisis, manmade ecological crisis (think Global Warming), the “greed is good” philosophy that defined the 1980s… and the Internet. All in one single novel generally considered as one of his less important works.

Holy crow.

The real story of Verne’s success is that he didn’t give up.

It’s hard to imagine the strength it took for a young man to ignore an experienced editor’s opinion and keep chasing the seemingly impossible images inside his own head. Somehow, Verne wasn’t discouraged by this early rejection, and instead knew where his true creative strengths lay. Verne somehow managed to define his career not as a writer of banal adventures, but instead as one of the founders of speculative fiction. It’s astounding to think that Jules Verne’s prescience extended even to the future of his own writing, his own self—the very things that even the most perceptive among us are usually blind to.

As a result, Verne didn’t just invent the internet—he kept on inventing and predicting and prophesying for the rest of his life.

Verne died in 1905.

He lived to see the Wright Brothers make their first flight. Everything else mentioned above was still waiting decades past his future.

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