Behind the Internet: the history of domain names

The History of Domain Names
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About the author

Samantha Lloyd is a Content Marketing Manager at Hover, a division of Tucows.

We all use domain names to navigate the Internet, but did you ever think about where the idea of domain names actually came from? Why do we use them and rely on them to bounce from website to website across the vast sea of information the internet provides? 

For all our usage, and even ownership of domains, most people don’t know why they began or why we continue to use them. Domain names are part of the Domain Name System of the internet’s infrastructure. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind that $12 purchase for your personal website or why it exists in the first, then you’re in the right place.

“Domain names are used in various networking contexts and for application-specific naming and addressing purposes. In general, a domain name identifies a network domain, or it represents an Internet Protocol (IP) resource, such as a personal computer used to access the Internet, a server computer hosting a web site, or the web site itself or any other service communicated via the Internet. In 2017, 330.6 million domain names had been registered.” via Wikipedia.

Early days: ARPANET

To simplify, a domain name allows you to access whatever it is you need to access that exists within the Internet. Domain names first came to use in through the Domain Name System in 1983, with general public registration not being available until February 24, 1986. 

Before the Domain Name System, you would access different addresses on computer networks through a host’s numerical address. Each computer on the network could access files from the host by using these numerical addresses. 

The Domain Name System process had to be introduced due to the complexity of how the Internet was operating prior to. Remembering numerical addresses would certainly have made scaling and public access difficult! The Domain Name System was introduced on ARPANET, a project under the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency.

ARPANET was originally published in 1967 and introduced a concept for the network that was essentially the foundation for the Internet. In 1969, the idea was put into practice with the interconnection of four computers. Much later, the Domain Name System was introduced on the ARPANET. It was published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

TLD's: Top Level Domains

To better understand domain names, it’s important to note that they are broken up into parts. The domain name extensions you’re familiar with, such as .COM and .ORG, are referred to as “Top-Level Domains” (TLDs). They apply to any word that is to the right of the dot. The part that you choose for your brand, company, or personal name is the “Second Level Domain” and before that, you’ll find the “Subdomain,” the most familiar being “www.”


(Image credit: Tucows)

There were seven Top-Level Domains that were introduced in 1984:

  • .com: .com is meant to short form the word “commercial” and its original intended use was for commercial organizations. There are nearly 150 million .com domain names registered and it remains the most recognizable Top-Level Domain. 
  • .org: .org is a domain extension that was meant for non-profit or charitable organizations and is still commonly associated with organizations that serve a public good. 
  • .net: .net was created with networks in mind. The term net derives from “network” and was originally associated with networking companies and infrastructure technology. 
  • .int: .int is short for “international” and was intended for international organizations, such as those entered into and endorsed by a treaty between two or more nations. 
  • .edu: .edu uses a shortened word for “education.” It was originally open to all types of educational institutions, but later had a restriction to accredited schools which are often associated with the United States. 
  • .gov: .gov represents “government” and is strictly used by United States government agencies or entities associated with the state or at a municipal level. 
  • .mil: .mil is for the United States military only. 

Fun fact! The first domain name ever registered was They have an online museum dedicated to the history of the Internet. 

Without these Top-Level Domains, and their availability to the public, you would not be able to register a domain name. 

Nowadays, there are hundreds of TLDs that you can choose between and many are open for anyone to register without restriction of use. If your domain extension is more than two letters, it’s a Generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD). If your domain extension is two letters long, it’s a Country Code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD). Countries are designated their ccTLD based on their International Organization for Standardization (ISO) code.

Domain names began their adventure into Internet infrastructure many decades ago, and it’s always interesting to learn just how long ago the Internet was a mere concept or idea. As something we rely on constantly nowadays (you’re probably reading this article while connected!), there’s always an opportunity to remember how it began and better understand why it functions as it does today. There are many intricacies to explore.

Think this was interesting? Then you’re in for a real treat as we continue to take you behind the scenes of the domain name industry. It’s a fascinating part of the Internet that everyone relies on, but not much of the general public knows about. In the next article, we will take you through the process of the governing body, ICANN, and how they impact the infrastructure of the Internet.


Samantha Lloyd is Content Marketing Manager at Hover, a division of Tucows.

Samantha Lloyd

Samantha is the co-founder and CEO of Metaranx. Before that she was the Content Marketing Manager at Tucows.