6 resources for learning about Internet history

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September 3, 1998 was the last day before civilization. Civilization began on September 4, 1998: the date of Google’s incorporation.

Oh sure, you might argue that civilization existed before Google. But who the heck knew about it? You can hardly count as civilized a society in which conversations unfolded like this one:

I think we need to get new dishes.

Yeah, we should go shopping this weekend.

You know what I’d love? Those colorful plates we had as kids.

Oh yeah! Those were great. What were they called?

Um..I don’t know. Do you?

No. Huh.

Huh.

Thanks to Google, here’s how that conversation goes today:

Hey, we need some new plates.

Yeah! How about those colorful ones we had as kids?

Great idea! You mean…[pauses to Google on iPhone]….Fiestaware?

That’s it! We can get it at…[pauses to Google]….Macy’s on Watertower.

Perfect. I’ll pick some up when I’m on my way home in my jetpack.

If the epoch-defining nature of Google is apparent now, that’s because 1998 was also the year in which we officially acknowledged the idea of Internet history. That’s the year that the Hobbes’ Internet Timeline — still the most widely used chronology of the Internet, and an invaluable resource for this series — cites as the year of its birth.  But check the birth certificate, and you see that the timeline dates to 1997.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Internet since 1998. Reflexive and self-documenting, as per the extraordinarily detailed timeline created by Robert Zakon…and as per the endless abundance of blog posts about blogging, tweets about tweeting and navels about navel-gazing. Intermittently inacurrate, as per the birthdate mix-up…and about a kabillion other online errors. Best and worst of all, transparently erroneous — and thus readily correctible — thanks to Google, which lets you immediately fact-check any date or factoid that seems at all dubious.

If self-documentation, archiving and historicizing are part of what defines any civilization, then the 1998(ish) arrival of both Hobbes and Google represents the emergence of our online civilization: our recognition that we are creating history, and at a rate that makes for a daunting search task! Here are the online history resources that have helped me make sense of our online civilization as I’ve blogged my way through this project:

  1. Hobbes’ Internet Timeline 10.1 is current to 2009 and includes the 5-20 most significant innovations for each year. It also has some useful tables and graphs showing various indicators of the Internet’s growth over time.
  2. The Computer History Museum’s Timeline of Computer History covers not just the history of the Internet, but also computers, gaming, robotics and other related fields. It runs from 1939 to 1994 and offers terrific insights into the early days of the Internet, as well as historic images to illustrate many pivotal moments.
  3. The Warbaby timeline takes the long view…and the wide view, too. It’s a giant table that goes all the way back to the invention of the abacus in 3000 BC, and lines up key moments in Internet history with what was happening in business and world events at the same time. It tapers out in 1996 and it has some dates wrong but it’s a good way to get a basic grasp of what happened when, and in what context.
  4. The Cellstream Internet History has the most detailed list of each year’s events, though since it’s a wiki, it is a bit quirky: clearly some Canadians and Swedes have gotten in there and filled in the blanks on their respective countries’ online activities, which may not be so relevant to people elsewhere. And someone has taken huge chunks of the Zakon/Hobbes timeline and dropped them in here. Cellstream also has a telecom history wiki, which overlaps significantly with what is in the Internet wiki.
  5. The History of the Internet in a Nutshell is what the name promises: a manageably-sized, not-too-detailed overview of major moments in our history online. If you want to spend a half-hour filling in the blanks on the events I’ve left out in this idiosyncratic history of life online, this is a good place to do it.
  6. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is a terrific resource for taking a first-hand look at any snapshot of the Internet’s history, as long as it’s on the web. You can use the Wayback Machine to see what any URL looked like at previous moments in time: the Internet Archive is essentially taking snapshots of the web as it evolves. It’s a bit hit-and-miss — you can’t count on finding the page you want from the time period you want — but can often help you fill in the gaps or find that great historical screenshot.

Because so much of this history is so recent, the best resources for researching each period of the Internet’s history depend on which decade (or year) you’re looking at. I’ll be sure to add any other gems I discover between now and May 5th.

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