Complete History of YouTube

This is the complete history of YouTube.

From cave paintings to YouTube—humans did a lot with information consumption.

So if you want to learn the COMPLETE history of YouTube, then this article is for you.

Let’s get right into it!

The History of YouTube (+Interesting Facts)

Everything Was Better Before—Not

Not sure about you, but some days it feels like YouTube is everywhere. It pops up on your newsfeed, webpages, and other Internet resources, sometimes unexpectedly. 

These days you can listen to your favorite songs, stream a movie, play a video game, learn how to plant potatoes, hear a funny political satire piece, or watch someone cook chicken tetrazzini with just a few keystrokes. 

Anything and everything is there. All you have to do is ask. It wasn’t always that way. 

Kids growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s had to work for the information.

If they wanted to find a recipe or learn how to plant a garden, they headed to the public library or made a phone call to the appropriate resource outlet, like the state’s regional agricultural extension service, to get the answers needed. 

To listen to music, they had four choices:

  • Buy the album or cassette tape
  • Listen to the radio or watch variety shows on TV
  • Go to concerts
  • Play the music yourself

If they wanted to watch the latest movie extravaganza, they also had limited options: 

  • Go see the movie in the theatre and pay full-price
  • Go to the early show for a slightly discounted price 
  • Wait until it came out on TV when it was abridged to fit the ads in within the prescribed time limit (and it required you to be very patient because it could take a couple of years to get there)

Videotape players were not mainstream until the late 1980s!

So How Did We Get Here? How Did YouTube Become so Ubiquitous?

The main answer to both of these questions is technological development. 

In other words, without the proper technology in place, the ability to stream videos could have never happened. 

And, as you can tell from the dates above, video-streaming of any kind is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. 

That being so, it is vital to place YouTube within a full historical context by diving even more profound than what has been described thus far. 

It Starts with the First Known Recording Of Information

In fact, we can go a long way back. Humans have been creating imagery to record the likenesses of important people and events or even the world around them for almost 40,000 years (i.e., early cave drawings).

Most of that time, the closest thing available to multiple images in a row were documents such as the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century), as just one example. 

Bayeux tapestry - Norman invasion of England.

That document recorded in needlework events related to the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. It is 70 meters long and 50 centimeters high. 

Books were another avenue to document a series of events but would remain expensive to produce well into the eighteenth century. 

To demonstrate just how hampered creating image-based experiences could be, in 1794, Robert Barker introduced a spectacular Panorama to London.

It was a large circular painting drawn on a wall in a round room that gave the viewer the feeling of being plopped down in the middle of a major city like Constantinople or a significant event like a great battle. 

For many people, this would be the only way they would ever be able to experience a place that far away or an event that changed the course of history.

These pay-to-view experiences would remain popular throughout the nineteenth century. 

The Very Beginnings of Films

But what about film? It would take centuries for film photography to enter the scene as a documentary medium. 

However, as early as the fourth century BCE, Chinese scholars were aware of the phenomenon known as camera obscura. 

Basically, pinhole imagery is the pinhole principle. One shines a light through a pinhole in some fabric or paper, which could create an upside-down image on a darkened wall behind it. 

Camera obscura vintage illustration.

Leonard DaVinci even created a drawing of this marvel in the 1490s. 

However, none of these camera obscura images could be preserved beyond a quick outline drawing of the image. Yet, it fascinated many for centuries.

The Understanding of Light

As science marched forward with ever-increasing discoveries, there came with it a better understanding of light, what it was, and how it interacts with the world. 

Some key discoveries included:

The understanding that white light actually contained multiple colors. It was not the color we see, but the perception of it via the light bouncing back into our eyes, as Isaac Newton discovered in the 1660s. 

And in 1727, Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that a chemical called silver nitrate that would darken when exposed to light. 

That later discovery proved vital in leading to a breakthrough to find a process that could take that pinhole image and make a permanent record of it. 

The first person to create a permanent image that way was Joseph Niepce in 1814. 

However, it took eight hours of light exposure to create the image. 

In 1837, Louis Daguerre improved upon this and created a system that would only take thirty minutes of exposure. 

Photography Comes Into Play

True photography really did not come into public use until the 1840s. It would take decades to move photography from specialists’ realm into the hands of the general public. 

The invention of a gelatin dry plate with silver bromide as the emulsion by a man named Richard Leach Maddox in 1871 changed photography’s exclusive nature. 

George Eastman took this system and, in 1884, improved it by creating the photographic film. 

The incredibly popular Brownie camera would follow in 1900 and would put photography in the hands of just about anyone. All of these images were black and white. 

Vintage brownie camera.

True, readily available color film did not exist until the 1930s. However, some early experiments did take place throughout the nineteenth century. 

The earliest know color photograph dates to 1861, called Tartan Ribbons, created by James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton. 

What about motion pictures? Well, glad you asked. 

The Evolution Continues: Motion Pictures

For centuries, people had been aware that stacking many pictures at different stages of action could create an impression of motion. They called this a flipbook. 

However, a more mechanical image motion device goes back to 180 CE in China. Ding Huan, the creator, used a spun device and had a sequence of drawings on it. 

Heat from a lamp would make it spin, and when it got to the right speed, it seemed as if the drawn images were moving. He called it “The pipe which makes fantasies appear.” 

In 1834, William Horner ran with this idea and created what would become known as a Zoetrope, “wheel of life.” 

You may have seen one in a documentary where a circular container with slatted sides and images inside. 

When the container was spun, the images blended together to look like a horse is running, as an example. 

The earliest moving pictures based upon photography was the Kinetoscope developed in 1891 by Thomas Edison and William Dickson. 

Edison's 1900 kinetophonograph.

But until 1898, when Reverend Hannibal Goodwin created celluloid photographic film, was there any chance of making what would become known as “the movies.” 

Photography and film become mainstream

Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century, and one would find the world filled with photography and film. 

Still, everything had to be presented through some form of projector onto a screen or broadcast to machines designed to process imagery—that is, one’s television. 

And television had its own set of complicated scientific requirements because it was one thing to transport voice and music electronically. It was another to transport images along with it. 

Remember, those data sets had to become electronic signals transmitted and then reconstructed at the other end. 

The earliest television was created in the 1920s. Still, it did not become generally available to the public until after World War II. It is also important to note that viewing moving images was a social affair done usually in a group setting of some kind. 

And sharing movies required “snail” mailing your film (or maybe a copy of your film) to someone else so they could project it onto a screen somewhere else. There was no electronic click and send like there is today. 

Computers in the 1950s could not help with this because their main focus was calculation and processing data. 

In fact, the biggest issue in computer science at the time was how to share large chunks of information (i.e., data) through wireless telegraphic systems. 

3 Breakthroughs That Made YouTube Possible

In 1948, one man would set the stage to change how we think about transmitting all data in his article, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” in the Bell System Technical Journal

Breakthrough #1

The author, Claude Shannon, introduced four major concepts that set the groundwork for what would become modern information technology:

  • In the first point, he offered a solution for the problem of noisy communication channels, what would become known as the “noisy channel theorem.” He found a way to increase the speed of transmission and decrease the noise and error during transmission. The key was encoding information and including redundancy in the information to reduce the probability of error. This theorem would also become known as the Shannon Limit. Basically, channel capacity limits you from sending data through a channel depending upon the given bandwidth and noise level.  
  • He introduced the architecture and design for communication systems by demonstrating that they could be broken down into components. 
  • Shannon realized that for transmission purposes, it didn’t matter what the content was. It could be in any format. It just had to be encoded into “bits”—the first time this word was ever used. He defined a “bit” as a unit of measurement for measuring information.
  • He then introduced the idea of source coding—what we call data compression today. Channel coding would become the key method to do this.

Shannon explained that the key to transmissions was the concept of entropy in electronics, which had originated in the study of thermodynamics. 

Basically, entropy was energy loss but can also be thought of as energy available. The idea was to exploit this during transmission through encoding. This theory led to many of the encoding algorithms we use today. 

Two more key pieces to the puzzle had to be put into place to make video streaming, and therefore, YouTube possible. 

Breakthrough #2

The first big step had to be how to share information beyond just your local network or LANs. Scientific needs would lead to the change. 

In 1969, to allow scientists to collaborate easily between institutions and US governmental agencies, a sharing network called ARPAnet was born. 

By the late-1970s, some systems were created to allow non-scientific and non-governmental organizations to connect to this digital network. 

However, what we know as the internet did not open to the general public until 1991 when the US government formally stepped back from its management and control. 

Breakthrough #3

Yet, people had to have access to computers to use the internet, right? 

In fact, much of the user interface we use every day, like the mouse, keyboard or pad, screen, etc. (often categorized as GUI—graphical user interface), did not really begin to be developed until the 1960s. 

The first microprocessor, the Intel 4004 chip, did not exist until 1971. 

And, the first personal computer did not exist until 1974. 

Today, the user interface and memory we take for granted were only in their infant stages just forty years ago. 

However, it is that interface and the ability to store and process HUGE amounts of data that make digital applications like YouTube possible. 

Remember, within Silicon Valley lore Bill Gates supposedly said in 1981 that 640 kilobytes should be enough data for anyone. 

Low-end flash drive holds multiples of that in 2021!

Once the general public had access to the internet, everything began to change and fast. 

Live-Streaming Comes Into Existence

Many see September 5, 1995, as the moment when live-streaming and video-streaming came into existence. 

On that day, ESPN SportsZone live-streamed a radio broadcast of a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees. 

Demand grew! 

Start-up companies like Progressive Networks and Macromedia entered the marketplace to help fill this vacuum. 

By the early-2000s, it became apparent that technology companies set out to institute some uniform protocols to ensure interoperability for the public. 

Early on, HTTP-based adaptive steaming would be the industry standard. 

Yet, as with everything else, this would change quickly because the public demanded less buffering and better connectivity. 

Cameraman shooting live broadcast from a soccer game.

By 2009, the industry-standard became 3GPP. This would evolve into the MPEG-DASH in 2012, and standards would continue to change as demand and needs shifted. 

YouTube Started in 2005

YouTube entered this brave new world in 2005. 

As with most internet start-ups, the story of its founding has a similar ring to it: Three techy guys saw a need and jumped in; created a system in their garage, and it took off; or not. 

Here is the actual story: In late 2004, three guys, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, all worked for the new e-payment company called PayPal (1998). 

They wanted to create a video-dating webpage, believe it or not. And, true to the cliché, they did the work out of a garage in Menlo Park, CA. 

On February 14, 2005, Valentine’s day, they established YouTube. The dating site-thing didn’t go well, so they altered their mission in April and created a video-hosting site. 

The very first video was Karim at the San Diego Zoo talking about elephant trunks. 

The first viral YouTube video was Ronaldinho, a Brazilian soccer player, receiving a pair of “Golden Boots.”

As with many start-ups, sometimes the mission and the dream are too big or are too early to make it. 

YouTube had a different problem—too much success. 

YouTube Almost Broke on Too Much Success

Overhead for things like bandwidth and other expenses began to suck them dry even with a huge influx of funds from venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital and Artis Capital Management. 

Within just a year of its founding, YouTube looked like a potential train wreck waiting to happen.

But, as luck would have it, Google, more particularly Susan Wojcicki, took an interest in the company. 

On October 9, 2006, Google purchased YouTube for 1.65 billion in stock. 

And the rest, they say, is history. 

Although it hasn’t always been entirely smooth sailing with scandals and lawsuits of various kinds over the last twenty-five years, it has become one of the best purchases Google ever made. 

As of 2018, 1.3 billion people use YouTube every month, and as of February 2020, the company generated $14 billion dollars in annual revenue! 

Oh! Cool! … sorry, there’s a YouTube video I need to watch. Gotta go!


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.

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