A Brief History of the Internet
Within our society there has been a revolution, one that rivals that of the Industrial Revolution. The Technological Revolution. At the head of this revolution is the Internet. A place full of information, adventure, and even for some, romance. In our society today everyone has heard of this technological wonder, and many use it on a daily basis, but for some the question still remains What is the Internet, and where did it come from?
Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, Americans foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem. How could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear war? Post nuclear America would need a command-and-control network, linked from city to city, state-to-state, and base-to-base. But no matter how thoroughly that network was armored or protected, its switches and wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact of atomic bombs. A nuclear attack would reduce any conceivable network to tatters. And how would the network itself be commanded and controlled? Any central authority, any network central citadel, would be an obvious and immediate target for an enemy missile. RAND mulled over this grim puzzle in deep military secrecy, and arrived at a daring solution. The network would have no central authority. Furthermore, it would be designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters.
The principles were simple, the network itself would be assumed to be unreliable at all times (Krol 11). It would be designed from the get-go to transcend its own unreliability. All the nodes (computers hooked to the network) in the network would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node with its own authority to originate, pass, and receive messages. The messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed. Each packet would begin at some specified source node, and end at some other specified destination node, winding its way through the network on an individual basis (Krol 11). The particular route that the packet took would be unimportant. Only final results would count. Basically, the packet would be tossed like a hot potato from node to node, more or less in the direction of its destination, until it ended up in the proper place. If big pieces of the network had been blown away, that simply wouldnt matter; the packets would still stay air born, lateralled wildly across the network by whatever node happened to survive.
The National Physical Laboratory in Great Britain set up the first test network on these principles in 1968. Shortly afterward, the Pentagons Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) decided to fund a larger, more ambitious project in the USA. In the fall 1969, the first node was installed in UCLA, and by December 1969 there were four nodes on the infant network, which was rightly named ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor (Overview of Internet Technology). The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-speed transmission lines. They could even be programmed remotely from other nodes. Thanks to ARPANET, scientists and researchers could share one anothers computer facilities by long-distance. By the second year of operation, however, and odd fact became clear. ARPANETs users had warped the computer-sharing network into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post office. The main traffic on ARPANET was not long-distance computing. Instead, it was news and personal messages. Researchers were using ARPANET to collaborate on projects, to trade notes on work, and eventually, to downright gossip and schmooze. People had their own personal user accounts on the ARPANET computers, and their own personal address for electronic mail (email) (Overview of Internet Technology).
Throughout the 70s, ARPANETs network grew, its decentralized structure made expansion easy. As long as individual machines could speak the packet-switching lingua franca of new, anarchic network, their brand names, and their content, and even their ownership, were irrelevant. The ARPANETs original standard for communication was known as NCP, Network Control Protocol, (Moschovits 62) but as time passed and the technique advanced. NCP was surpassed by a higher-level, more sophisticated standard known as TCP/IP (Overview of Internet Technology). TCP, or Transmission Control Protocol, converts messages into streams of packets at the source, and then reassembles them back into messages at the destination (Krol 23). IP, or Internet Protocol, handles the addressing, seeing to it that packets are routed across multiple nodes and even multiple networks with multiple standards (Krol 20).
As the 70s and 80s advanced, many very different social groups found themselves in possession of powerful computers. It was fairly easy to link these computers to the growing network-of-networks. As the use of TCP/IP became more common, entire other networks fell into digital embrace of the Internet, and messily adhered. Since the software called TCP/IP was public-domain, (Overview of Internet Technology) and the basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by its very nature, it was very difficult to stop people from barging in and linking up somewhere-or-other. In point of fact, nobody wanted to stop them from joining this branching complex of networks, which came to be known as the Internet. Connecting to the Internet cost the taxpayer little or nothing, since each node was independent, and had to handle its own financing and its own technical requirements. The more the merrier. Like the phone network, the computer network became steadily more valuable as it embraced larger and larger territories of people and resources. A fax machine is only valuable if everybody else has a fax machine. Until they do, a fax machine is just a curiosity. ARPANET, too, was a curiosity for a while, and then computer networking became an utter necessity.
In 1984 the National Science Foundation got into the act, through its Office of Advanced Scientific Computing. The new NSFNET set a blistering pace for technical advancement, linking newer, faster, shinier supercomputers, through thicker, faster links, upgraded and expanded, again and again, in 1986, 1988, and 1990 (Krol 12). The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divided up into basic varieties. Foreign computers, and a few American ones, chose to be denoted by their geographical locations. The others were grouped by the six basic Internet domains: gov, mil, edu, com, org, and net. Gov, Mil, and Edu denoted governmental, military and educational institutions. Com, however, stood for commercial institutions, which were soon bursting into the network like rodeo bulls, surrounded by a dust-cloud of eager nonprofit orgs. (The net computers served as gateways between networks)
ARPANET itself formally expired in 1990, a happy victim of its own overwhelming success. (Overview of Internet Technology) Its users hardly noticed, for ARPANETs functions not only continued but steadily improved. In 1971, a mere thirty years ago, there were only four nodes in the ARPANET network. Today there are tens of thousands of nodes in the Internet, scattered over forty-two countries, with more coming on-line every day (Cerf). Three million, possibly four million people use this gigantic mother-of-all computer networks. The Internets pace of growth in the 90s is spectacular, almost ferocious. Last year the Internet was growing at a rate of twenty percent a month and the number of host machines with direct connection to TCP/IP has been doubling every year since 1988 (Cerf). The Internet is moving out of its original base in military and research institutions, and into elementary and high schools, as well as into public libraries and even coffee shops.
Long distance computing was an original inspiration of ARPANET and is still a very useful service, at least for some. Programmers can maintain accounts on distant, powerful computers, run programs there or write their own. Scientists can make use of powerful supercomputers a continent away. Libraries offer their electronic card catalogs for free search. Enormous CD-Rom catalogs are increasingly available through this service. And there are fantastic amounts of free software available.
The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading like bread mold. Any computer with sufficient power is a potential spore of the Internet, and today such computers sell for less than $2,000 and are in the hands of people all over the world. ARPAs network, designed to assume control of a ravaged society after nuclear holocaust, has been surpassed by its mutant child the Internet, which is thoroughly out of control, and spreading exponentially through the post Cold War electronic global village. The spread of the Internet in the 90s resembles the spread of personal computing in the 1970s, though it is even faster and perhaps much more important. More important, perhaps, because it may give those personal computers a means of cheap, easy storage and access that is truly planetary in scale.
The future of the Internet bids fair to be bigger and exponentially faster. Commercialization of the Internet is a very hot topic today, with every manner of wild new commercial information service promised. The federal government, pleased with an unsought success, is also very much in the act. NREN, the National Research and Education Network, was approved by Congress in fall 1991, as a five year, $2 billion project to upgrade the Internet backbone. NREN is now fifty times faster than the fastest network in 1991, allowing the electronic transfer of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in one hot second (EFF Information Infrastructure). Computer networks worldwide now feature 3-D animated graphics, portable computers (PALMs) and cellular phone links to the Internet, and this is only the beginning.
As we enter this new millennium, the Internet will be the road we drive on to get us to the next level of technological greatness. As astonishing as man walking on the moon, who would have thought that a device created to help during the worlds worst hour has now become the device that has united the globe. ARPANET may have got the ball rolling but this animal the Internet is on a blazing run to who knows where. We can only sit back, hang on, and enjoy the ride as we the technological generation wait for the next great technological wonder to change everything once more.
Cerf, Vint. A Brief History of the Internet and Related Networks. Cerf and the Internet. 1 Oct. 2001 .
EFF Information Infrastructure NREN & NSFNet Archive. The National Research and Education Network Program A Report to Congress. Dec. 1992. 2 Oct. 2001 .
Krol, Ed. The Whole Internet Catalog & Users Guide.
New York City, NY, OReilly and Associates, Inc. 1992.
Kehoe, Brendan, P. Zen and the Art of the Internet.
Moschovitis, Christos J.P. et al. History of the Internet: A Chronology, 1843 to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA, Moschovitis Group, Inc.
Overview of Internet Technology. Internet Timeline. 1 Oct. 2001 .
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