Switched on: how computers transformed communication

Science Museum

live in a world of constant communication. People across the globe are
connected by devices small enough to fit into their pockets. From time-sharing
to the early Internet and the birth of the World Wide Web, this is the story of
how giant calculating machines were transformed into powerful communication

CDC 6600 Super Computer (1968) by Control Data LimitedScience Museum

The need for speed

In the 1950s, giant standalone computers were used in the UK, US and the Soviet Union for academic and military research. They offered extraordinary processing power, but they were hugely expensive and access to these machines was limited. As a result, researchers started ‘time-sharing’. This meant they could simultaneously access one computer through a series of terminals, although individually they had only a fraction of the computer’s power at their command.

IBM System 360 195 computer, manufactured by IBM, United States (1971) by IBMScience Museum

Cold War concerns

As the number of computer users grew, a serious need arose for networking. This coincided with a Cold War fear in the US that they needed to develop a communications system that would survive a Soviet nuclear attack. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was founded in 1958 by the US Department of Defence. Among its projects was ARPANET—a network of mainframe machines that formed the foundations of the Internet.

PacketScience Museum

Information flow through networks

In 1959, computer networking expert Paul Baran began to design a communications network that would continue to function even if parts of it were destroyed.

At the same time, physicist Donald Davies conducted pioneering work that enabled computer files to be broken up into small segments (called ‘packets’), distributed across a network, and then reordered back into a single file at their destination.

ARPANET logical map (1977) by Advanced Research Projects AgencyScience Museum

A network of networks

As more computers attempted to join ARPANET, an agreed set of rules for handling information was required. In 1974, computer scientists Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf proposed a new method to send information through a network in a digital envelope, or ‘datagram’. The method was called transmission-control protocol, and became known as TCP/IP. This allowed computers to speak the same language, and ARPANET quickly grew into a global interconnected network of networks, or Internet.

Control unit for Honeywell DDP 516 computer (1966/1970) by HoneywellScience Museum

The Honeywell DDP 516 computer was part of Honeywell's Series 16 family of computers. In the 1960s, they were commonly used for data processing. DDP 516 computers were used as interface message processors (IMPs) in the early ARPANET network. IMPs were the gateways that enabled packets of data to be transferred between machines.


By the end of the 1980s the Internet was expanding rapidly, but an advanced knowledge of computing was still needed to access the growing number of applications. The Internet needed to be easier to use. An answer to the problem appeared in 1989 when British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his employer, CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, in Geneva. Berners-Lee proposed a new way of structuring and linking information stored on the wide range of computers across the worldwide Internet.

Replica of the 'Baby' or SSEM computer (1998) by Computer Conservation SocietyScience Museum

Berners-Lee had grown up living and breathing computers. His mother and father worked on the development of the Manchester Mark 1, the predecessor of which, the ‘Baby’ computer, was the first computer to store its programs and data.

Original NeXT computer used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to design the World Wide Web (1990) by NeXTScience Museum

A global information space

Berners-Lee used a NeXT computer to initiate his new way of transferring information. Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) created a simple way of transferring documents over the Internet. He also created a piece of software that presented documents in an easy-to-read format. He called the ‘browser’ the ‘WorldWideWeb’. The Web became available for universal use on 30 April 1993, when CERN published a statement making it available on a royalty-free basis.

Tim Berners-Lee, pioneer of the World Wide Web (1990) by CERNScience Museum

Following the Web's public release, the Internet flourished.

Now, anyone can use it as a tool to add a server, create their own domain name, create web pages or simply browse at will.

Ongoing improvements to hardware and infrastructure mean the Internet quickly became an indispensable tool and revolutionised our daily lives the world over.

iPhone 3G mobile phone (2008/2010) by AppleScience Museum

Connected computers in our pockets

In the 1990s and 2000s more—and smaller—devices connected to the Internet, giving users unprecedented access to information at their fingertips. In 2008, the iPhone 3G arrived in Britain, driving a spike in mobile Internet usage, which has continued to grow ever since. We’ve come a long way from the room-sized machines at the centre of the first computer networks.

Credits: Story

Read more about the key moments that have shaped our computerised world on the Science Museum website.

Explore more objects which have revolutionised the flow of information in our online collection or visit our Information Age gallery.

All images © Science Museum Group except where stated.

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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