The Internet plays such an important role in our everyday life that it’s easy to forget it only become widespread in the last 15 years. Before then the Internet was used by a select few and far less often than it is now. Yet it may surprise you to know that there are things on the Internet that are far older than they initially seem to be. In some cases, the Internet is simply taking advantage of technology that’s decades old.
10. The “@” Symbol
The “@” symbol has become one of the most easily recognizable and most used characters on a keyboard. Its importance in the use of emails, and now in social media, makes it seem like something that came along with the Internet. The truth though is that the symbol has had a much longer life, dating back at least 500 years.
There are numerous theories about who invented the symbol and what exactly it’s been used for in its long history. These include the proposition that it may have come evolved from other words, such as the Latin ‘ad’ and the French á, or that that it may have been a way for scribes to be more efficient in their writing.
The most widely accepted explanation is that it was used by merchants as useful shorthand for “at the rate of,” with the first documented use coming from a Florentine merchant in 1536. Merchants used the symbol in this manner for a long period, but it eventually fell into obscurity until Ray Tomlinson decided to use the symbol to separate usernames from the computers that they were used on.
Since the early 2000s, the number of email accounts has grown significantly, with a 32% rise in the number of users between 2009 and 2013. People had largely been content with text messages and phone calls as their primary communication method before then.
However, that doesn’t mean that email wasn’t still around before. Hotmail, now known at Outlook, began life in 1996 and had over eight million subscribers by 1997. Email goes back even further than that — the system began as a way to send messages directly to another person’s file directory and was first used by MIT in 1965, although users could only send these messages to others on the same computer network. The first actual email that was sent over a network rather than a single computer system came in 1971 thanks to Ray Tomlinson, with the system soon becoming widespread in academic and military institutions.
Emoticons are used in almost all forms of Internet communication, from message boards to emails to instant messages, but they have humble beginnings in Morse code. Early documents show that operators would use particular numbers to express emotions and feelings as shorthand, something of a precursor to what emoticons would become. Then, in 1881, satirical magazine Puck published some typographical emoticons, though not with the same intention that they’re used today.
Graphical symbols used to express emotion became more mainstream thanks to the smiley face from Harvey Ball that inspired the creation of other graphics. The first use of emoticons from text used to express feelings came from Scott Fahlman on a message board in 1982. The use then spread across the web through other message boards and eventually evolved into what we use today.
7. Text Speak
The fact that text speak came to the mainstream through SMS messaging means that it would have been moderately popular before most people were using the Internet regularly. SMS became standard in mobile phones from around 1999, even though it was first introduced in 1992.
The practice of using shorthand words and acronyms in messages has now become commonplace not just on smartphones but also in emails, instant messaging and chatrooms. The first time such a system was commonly used was with telegrams, where operators would often charge per character. This forced customers into being economical with their words, with coded expressions and agreed upon abbreviations used. But text speak goes back even further than telegrams — a collection held by the British Library shows documents from the 19th century using such abbreviations, while a letter from 1917 to Winston Churchill has an “OMG” contained in it, with the writer even explaining the term.
6. Electronic Spam
Junk mail and spam isn’t new. Mass-market printing allowed companies to send junk mail advertising their products or services through the mail, filling up people’s homes with paper that in nearly half of cases is thrown away unread.
The practice has now spread to the digital realm. In addition to physical paper filling up your mailbox, Internet users have the joy of having their inboxes bombarded by spam every single day. Having unwanted electronic advertisements sent directly to users is nothing new though — it’s over 150 years old.
In 1864, a dental surgery sent a large number of unsolicited telegrams to various people in London informing them of their new services. Predictably, most of the recipients were less than welcoming to what was the first instance of electronic spam. Other businesses soon followed that example and spam has been with us ever since.
The craze of people taking “selfies” has grown to such an extent that smartphones now come with front facing cameras to allow them to be taken much more easily. Whether it’s at a club, a concert or a tourist destination, you’ll probably see someone taking a photo of themselves on a fairly regular basis. Heck, even monkeys are getting in on the act.
And that’s nothing new. A letter from the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna speaks of a photograph that she took of herself in the mirror, much like the type of photos you see on Facebook. Similar photos from the same time exist, showing that the process was at least somewhat widespread. The first selfie is widely believed to be a photograph taken by Robert Cornelius. The American photographer created the portrait in 1839, making the selfie at least 175 years old.
4. Online Gaming
Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and other platforms like Steam and Origin have made online gaming incredibly popular. They allow people to connect with others from all around the world to play a multitude of games. Online multiplayer has evolved to be one of the most important aspects of gaming, with developers spending as much time creating them as single player experiences.
While consoles like the Xbox have helped make online multiplayer mainstream since 2002, gamers have been able to play with others through the Internet for far longer. Doom was released in 1993 and became one of the most famous shooters of all time, thanks in part to its online deathmatch mode. Sega meanwhile introduced an online service in 1990 known as Meganet.
However, the first fully online game came out more than 40 years ago. John Daleske and Silas Warner created Empire in 1973, allowing players to control a spaceship and battle with up to 30 players at a time.
3. 419 Scams
One of the most common types of spam that people receive today are 419 scams. These try to trick people into handing over their bank details so that a businessman or royal can smuggle money out of their country. In exchange for allowing your bank account to transfer the funds, they promise to pay the victim a share of the wealth.
Even before email was widespread, fraudsters commonly used the same con but with the assistance of snail mail. It was a popular scam at least 20 years ago in Nigeria, with criminals sending letters to victims through the postal system. And the basic outline of the con has been going since the 16th century — then it was known as the “Spanish Prisoner” scam and involved an apparent prisoner who needed someone to pay his bail so he could be released from jail. In exchange, the prisoner would give the victim a share of some treasure or savings.
2. Denial-of-service Attacks
DoS attacks are actions designed to make a website, network or computer system unavailable. The attackers do this by flooding the target with requests so that it can’t communicate with legitimate users, effectively taking the target offline. The most common occurrence of DoS attacks happen when hackers try to take websites offline.
DoS attacks are far from the first time that a technique has been used to prevent technology from operating in its usual way. Black faxes were a common way for pranksters and disgruntled recipients of fax spam to get their revenge on companies. Essentially, the attackers would send a fax machine multiple pages filled entirely with black tone. This served a number of purposes. It forced the fax machine to use huge amounts of ink, which was expensive, and it forced the machine to shut down. The attack also stopped others from communicating through fax, potentially forcing the recipient from being able to conduct any of their business.
1. The Internet
What most people think of as the Internet officially went live in 1991. But the World Wide Web, a way of searching the Internet using specific characters, was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. The CERN employee made the software for the World Wide Web available freely, which helped in getting users to adopt it and eventually made it widespread.
The Internet had humble beginnings in the 1960s thanks to networks such as ARPANET. This allowed universities to communicate with each other over a closed system. Networks from that time weren’t compatible with others, preventing communication across separate networks. Later systems such as BITNET and USENET allowed users to access messages from different servers, yet there was still no real unifying system to connect all of the networks together until Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web.