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This man invented the dot com internet architecture

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 13, 2024 6:08 PM EDT
Emmit McHenry. Photo credit: The Business Journals

Without Emmit McHenry, websites may have been complex to navigate, there would be no eCommerce and social media would not exist. McHenry unleashed the commercial potential of the internet by inventing a complex code that allows anyone to search the internet and use email services without having computer programming knowledge. He created the dot com architecture – and .net, .edu, and .gov – which allows us to communicate through the internet.

“I mean, it was surprising that a small company would even think that they could beat Stanford Research Institute in any competition. But I’m a wrestler, so challenges like that I think, you take on, right? As we said, let’s take them to the mat, and we won, we won that and had the root domain at our headquarters—boom,” McHenry said about how he pioneered dot com internet architecture.

The eldest of nine children, McHenry was mostly raised by relatives and his grandmother. He excelled academically and in sports during high school where he played football and wrestled. He graduated as the president of his class, participated in student government, was elected the youth Mayor of Tulsa, and then youth Secretary of State through YMCA’s Hi-Y program. When it came to choosing universities, McHenry had his pick of several outstanding choices. He was offered a football scholarship to Tennessee State University in Nashville but instead chose to go to the University of Denver on a wrestling scholarship.

When McHenry became injured, the University granted him an academic scholarship as his grades were good enough. He had initially majored in physics but then discovered communications and changed his major. He graduated with a degree in communications in 1966. Immediately after college, McHenry interviewed with IBM and was offered a job. He became a systems engineer, learning older unit record equipment that involved wiring control panels by hand and the IBM System/360 Model 30 which was the first line of computers to allow machine language programs to be written. He was drafted into the Marine Corps after only a year of working at IBM.

McHenry then attended graduate school at Northwestern University School of Communication in Evanston, Illinois. He started a consulting practice and served as the school’s assistant Dean. His work impressed Union Mutual Insurance Company in Maine which recruited him to help restructure the company. During his consulting days in Maine, McHenry met Ty Grigsby with whom he began discussing the potential to merge voice and computer data through networks of computers.

In 1979, they put their thoughts into action and founded Network Solutions. They poured their savings, mortgages, credit cards, and everything they had into developing the idea. It began as a consulting company for building telecommunications network systems for Boeing, and IBM, eventually earning contracts with the federal government. However, McHenry was still working as a consultant for Allstate Insurance and doing corporate strategy and restructuring work that Network Solutions was not growing as fast as its founders wanted. He was traveling more than working and it was unsustainable for the startup.

Network Solutions’ moment to shine came when the company democratized the complex and proprietary process of acquiring a domain name. The company focused on developing the TCP/IP protocol and introduced the first interoperability software package (OpenLink) which allowed computers to communicate over the internet. Before, domains were managed by the Stanford Research Institute which was run by one person. It was impossible to manage domain names for everyone who wanted them and even more of a challenge updating servers with newly registered domain names.

The company was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a registration system for domain name registration for the Internet. Network Solutions was the only company to approach the NSF about commercializing the domain name registration process and became the exclusive domain name registration company. It charged $100 to register a domain name for two years and gave $30 to the NSF, and any individual or company who wanted to register a domain name could have one. McHenry’s innovations heralded the “dotcom” boom in the early 1990s.

In 1995, McHenry and the founders sold Network Solutions to Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). The company had managed to sell 60,000 domain names and needed additional funding to build the firm as the internet started to take off. The NFS contract made growth difficult as the company was unable to raise its contract fees despite how many additional domain names it registered. However, within only a few months the government granted SAIC the authority to increase charges and earn a royalty on any further domain names generated. SAIC transformed the $4.8 million acquisition of Network Solutions into a $21 billion business.

McHenry identifies selling Network Solutions too early as the biggest regret of his career. But without his contributions, the internet as we know it would not have been possible. Today, there are more than 350 million domain name registrations – a testament to the ingenuity of a Black man.