While it was a bold claim, “took the initiative in creating” is not the same as “invented.” The latter summons up images of Gore writing equations in a white lab coat, laying fiberoptic cable in a hardhat, and sharing a cup of tea with a house wife while explaining how to use e-mail; the former suggests that he played a key role in a broader congressional effort to formulate policies that enabled other people (engineers and computer scientists) to make the Internet what it is today. And that is pretty close to the truth.
Indeed, Al Gore was well aware that the “Internet” was already in existence when he was first elected to Congress in 1977. The groundwork for the Internet was laid in the late 1960s by researchers who invented a way to transmit information by breaking large amounts of data into smaller “packets,” which could be sent to multiple computers simultaneously. This digital network was organized and funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the Pentagon’s research and development division, to share information between four key research sites. As more schools and labs were added, the network grew from four routers in 1969 to 40 in 1972. In 1975, when there were 57 routers (including some in Europe), ARPA handed the Net over to the Pentagon, which planned to use it as a backup if other communications were knocked out by a Soviet first strike.
Al Gore played a key role in making the network available for nonmilitary use. One year after the Pentagon separated the military and civilian parts of the network, Gore supported initiatives to build new “wide area networks” (WAN). To speed this process, in 1986 Gore authored the Supercomputer Network Act, which funded research to expand connections between universities and research facilities using high-capacity fiber-optic cables. In 1988 the Pentagon announced it would phase out ARPANET by 1990, prompting universities, industry, and other civilian users to expand the nonmilitary network. At the urging of these groups, Gore authored legislation allocating federal funds to connect 1,000 academic and other civilian networks to form an “information superhighway.” This evolved into the National High-Performance Computing and Communications Act, a $1.7 billion project linking universities, libraries, government facilities, and industrial labs in a common network. The NHPCCA— otherwise known as the “Gore Bill”— also funded computer scientists who developed Mosaic, the first graphic Web browser.
The 1992 expiration date set for funding raised the question of how to finance further expansion. Again, Gore was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992, which allowed businesses and individuals to use the Internet commercially. Gore understood the broader implications of his policies: rallying support for the NHPCCA in the House of Representatives in 1989, he told committee members, “I genuinely believe that the creation of this nationwide network will create an environment where work stations are common in homes and even small businesses.”
Some years later, Gore’s colleagues and leading computer scientists stepped up to defend his claim that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” In September 2000, Newt Gingrich said, “Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.” Meanwhile Vinton Cerf, who played a key role in designing the architecture and protocols of the Internet and is sometimes credited as the “father of the Internet,” recalled that “Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development . . . long before most people were listening.”