Net meaning “mesh” comes from the Middle English nett, which in turn borrows from the Proto-Germanic natjan. Meaning “remaining after deductions”, it first appears in the 18th century and has roots in the Old French net “pure, clean, bright” (the same predecessor of neat).
Of course, modern day computer users are intimately familiar with the ‘net’, which is commonly believed to be a shortening of Internet. In fact, it is originally a contraction of just network, coming from a time before the modern Internet was born.
Network first saw use in the 19th century to mean “inter-linking system”, and when computing began to grow it was naturally used to talk about systems of computers connected to each other.
The first proposal of large-scale computer networking came from J.C.R. Licklider of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who in 1962 envisaged a world-wide network of computers allowing everybody to speedily access information1. The idea sounded a little far-fetched at the time, but in 1961 came the first paper on packet switching theory2 followed by the first book in 19643. Packet switching technology made fast data transfer over a large distance feasible.
Eventually, wide scale computer networks such as ARPANET sprang up around America and became gradually interconnected. ‘The Network’ or ‘the net’ was the common term for this conglomeration, and was especially popular amongst the hacker culture that was quickly born. After the public discovery of the network called the Internet in the early 1990s, the term has been embraced by the masses, though technically the Internet still only refers to part of the Network.
The term Internet itself comes from early work done by Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, creators of the TCP/IP protocol that is used to allow computers to communicate with each other online. Their programme was called ‘Internetting’ from ‘inter-networking’ and refers to their attempts to collectively network existing networks of systems. In 1995, the Federal Networking Council officially defined the word Internet, which has since passed into widespread use.
1. Licklider, J.C.R and Clark, W. ‘On-Line Man Computer Communication’, August 1962
2. Kleinrock, L. ‘Information Flow in Large Communication Nets’, RLE Quarterly Progress Report, July 1961.
3. Kleinrock, L. Communication Nets: Stochastic Message Flow and Delay, New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 1964.
NB. This is my own work, adapted from my English Language university project