“Get Linked or Get Lost”: A History of the Internet

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in , ,


For most people, the Internet arrived sometime between 1993-1995, but it did not just miraculously come into being. It is a long story of an almost accidental evolution of a government-funded military experiment named “ARPAnet” into today’s ubiquitous, commercial Web. Its evolution can be linked to ancient information-processing devises such as the abacus and travelling through the years to a series of rapid technological changes during the late nineteenth century--such as the typewriter, punch clock, cash register, and four-function calculators--that provided new ways of processing information. In the 1960s, a group of “anarchist hippies” from different organizations began realizing the potential which computer technology had for revolutionizing communication in ways that had not happened since the invention of the printing press over 500 years ago.

The ARPAnet

Worried that the U.S. was falling behind in terms of scientific achievement after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA had as its state mission to keep the U.S. ahead of military rivals by pushing research projects that promised significant advances in defence-related fields. ARPA had several project offices that funded research in different areas depending on the changing priorities of the Department of Defense (Burman 2003). One of these divisions, the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) headed by J.C.R Licklider of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN) became a major funder of computer science in the United States and the driving force behind research into areas such as graphics, artificial intelligence, and networking.

One of Licklider’s visions was to create an “intergalactic network” of computers and people. His influential 1960 paper “Man-Computing Symbiosis” was a revolutionary conceptual shift because it cast computers not as number-crunching machines but as an exciting new communication medium. After Licklider left ARPA for MIT, his successor, Robert Taylor, remained committed to Licklider’s “intergalactic network” because it allowed ARPA researchers from around the country to access various computers in different locations (Abbate 1999).

Laying the Foundation of the Internet

Paul Baran of the United States Air Force-backed Research and Development organization (RAND) would help Lickliders’ dream become a reality by creating what would become the foundation for the Internet. In 1962, Baran was commissioned by the Air Force to research a decentralized, survivable way to maintain control over its missiles in the case of a nuclear attack.   Baran’s final proposal was what was called a “packet-switched network.”

Unlike the traditional network system which channelled information through one source to be processed and then routed somewhere else, packet switching essentially split large sections of data into little sections called “packets” that could be sent through different routes which all led to the same place. Upon arrival, information would be reassembled (Segaller 1998). Packet switching allowed dynamic rerouting--in other words, information could to be routed and rerouted quickly to any computer.

Baran talked to Robert Taylor of ARPRA who pushed the project forward by awarding what was called the “ARPAnet” contract to BBN. The team at BBN proposed that this network be composed of what was called Interface Message Processors (IMPs), or routers that were connected with modems that would process data packets. BBN chose Honeywell’s DDP-516 to build the first IMP and, in 1969, the very first rudimentary peer-to-peer network was established when BBN installed the first IMP at UCLA and succeeded in transmitting the “l” and the “o” in the word “login” to Stanford before the system crashed.  Hence, the first message on the Internet was “lo” An hour later, they were successful in transmitting the full “login.”

Later that year, four major computers at major universities (UCLA, University of Utah, Stanford Research Institute, and UCSB) joined the network, with other universities soon following (Burman 2003). As the network grew, however, ARPAnet managers realized that the original system supported only client-server applications like Telnet and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and couldn’t handle host-to-host connections. These limitations were overcome with the NCP, or Network Control Program, which allowed communications between different hosts running on the same network.

Becoming an ARPAnet user, however, was difficult. The first challenge for any potential user was getting access to the network. For a site to get an ARPAnet connection, someone would have to have a research contract with ARPA or had to pay the cost of setting up their node which, in 1972, might run anywhere between $55,000 and $107,000. When a site was approved, ARPA had to order a new IMP from Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, reconfigure the network to include the new node, and arrange with AT&T for a telephone link between the new node and the rest of the ARPAnet. Once a site was connected to ARPAnet, though, access to its controls was much looser (Abbate 1999). In theory, access within each site was to be limited to individuals doing work for ARPA, though few sites actually enforced that policy.

Many members of ARPAnet suspected that ARPA managers were aware that unsanctioned users were on the network and did not object. Unauthorized users who contributed improvements to the system were even tacitly encouraged. In fact, “science fiction lovers” mailing lists were apparently allowed to operate over ARPAnet provided they generated enough traffic to allow ARPA managers to observe the network’s behaviour under the load. Another unofficial but tolerated activity was Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg, which made an effort to make historically significant documents available over the network. Hart was not an ARPA researcher but had acquired an account at the University of Illinois and began by posting the Declaration of Independence on his site’s computer in December of 1971. Project Gutenberg is still in operation on the Internet to this day (Abbate 1999).

Once on the network, users had access to some of the most advanced computer systems in the U.S., but using it was difficult or unappealing, and new sites were given little direction on how to get started. In addition, navigating what was available on the ARPAnet was difficult because the network search tools that Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) users would later take for granted did not exist. ARPAnet, however, would change forever with the creation of “net notes” (later “email”) created by Ray Tomlinson. Email quickly became the network's most popular and influential service, surpassing all expectations. Email was not included in the original blueprint for the network, and its success represented a radical shift in the ARPAnet’s identity and purpose. The network was originally built to provide access to computers rather than to people, but email and emailing created a deeper level of community among ARPAnet users (Murphy 2002).

In 1972, ARPAnet was successfully demonstrated to the International Conference on Computer Communications in Washington in the presence of AT&T and other international telephone companies. In July, 1974, the ARPAnet was transferred to the Defense Communication Agency as an operational network where it continued to perfect protocols and expand the ARPAnet to function internationally by satellite links. Over the course of the decade, the ARPAnet, which was a single network that connected a few dozen sites, would be transformed into the Internet, which was a system of many interconnected networks, capable of almost indefinite expansion (Burman 2003).

Designing the Internet

NCP, the first standard networking protocol of ARPA (now called DARPA: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), was rapidly becoming unable to accommodate growing network traffic. Vinton (“Vint”) Cerf and Robert Kahn created the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) in the mid-1970s, which added flexibility and sophistication to the network. In fact, the move from NCP to TCP/IP is considered by many people as the beginning of the Internet (the first use of the word “Internet” was in a 1974 paper by Cerf and Kahn on Transmission Control Protocol). TCP did more than just set up a connection between two hosts--it also controlled the rate of data flow between the hosts, compensated for errors by retransmitting lost or damaged packets, and verified the safe arrival of packets using acknowledgments (Segaller 1998).

Cerf and Kahn planned for TCP to replace NCP as the ARPANET’s host protocol and be the standard host protocol in every subsequent network built by ARPA. They also proposed splitting the TCP protocol into two separate parts: a host-to-host protocol and an internetwork protocol (IP), which would become known as TCP/IP. IP would pass individual packets between machines and TCP would be responsible for ordering these packets into reliable connections between pairs of hosts.

In March 1981, Major Joseph Haughney announced that all ARPAnet hosts would be required to implement TCP/IP in place of NCP by January of 1983. The replacement became a major ordeal and Dan Lynch, a computer systems manager, made up buttons that read “I Survived the TCP Transition.” After converting ARPAnet to TCP/IP, DARPA created a separate MILnet site equipped with encryption devices and other security measures to support their military functions while ARPAnet would continue to host civilian academic researchers. ARPAnet’s military roots would continue to be downplayed and, in 1987, the supervision of the Internet was transferred from the Department of Defense to the National Science Foundation (NSF) (Abbate 1999).

Launching the Internet

As the Internet grew, its backbone network, ARPAnet, was unable to keep up. ARPAnet managers and the NSF agreed to connect the ARPAnet sites to the NSF’s regional networks and have the NSFnet take over as the backbone of the Internet. NSFnet had higher-speed lines and faster switches, and it could handle more traffic. Since the NSF and DARPA were already operating their network services jointly, the merger would be relatively painless. During 1988 and 1989, various DARPA sites transferred their host connections from ARPAnet to NSFnet. On 28 February 1990, ARPAnet was formally decommissioned, the remaining hardware dismantled, and military operation of the Internet came to a close. Soon after the completion of NSFnet’s new and faster T1 lines, Internet traffic increased rapidly, and its T1 lines are usually considered the tool which opened the Internet to the world (Burman 2003).

In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) developed the next phase of the development of the Internet, the vocabulary of the World Wide Web, while the debut of the first browser, Mosaic (whose developers founded Netscape), provided easy access to information dispersed through servers all over the world by means of the Web’s hyperlinks. By 1995, the Internet had grown into a new communications paradigm. It had started as a network offering file sharing, remote login, and resource sharing for a small group of scientists and had evolved into a global network accessible by anyone who had an ordinary telephone and a personal computer (Murphy 2002).

In 1995, the NSF privatized the Internet and contracted with several companies to carry most of its traffic. Today these companies, or Internet Service Providers (ISPs), include Verizon, AT&T, Qwest, and IBM. There are also smaller ISPs such as cable and DSL companies. Within these backbones are IXPs, or Internet Exchange Points, that allow networks to exchange data. For example, while Verizon and Sprint provide a part of the Internet’s backbone, they aren’t connected--they need an IXP to connect.

Currently, there are several organizations that oversee the Internet’s protocols and infrastructure to ensure that information from one computer to the next can be can be understood. These organizations include The Internet Society, The Internet Engineering Task Force, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Burman 2003). But while the framework of the Internet is carefully designed and cared for, the content continues to be extremely democratic and free.

Future of the Internet

The Internet’s democratic nature has made it seen as needing careful regulation in countries such as China and India. However, as one scholar argues, the seemingly boundless freedom of the Internet is not guaranteed. Some scholars argue that the generative power of the Internet could be on a path to lockdown by Internet-entered products such as iPods, iPhones, Tivos which can’t be easily modified by anyone except vendors. Instead of using personal computers which can run any program from any source without approval from a third party, we are entering a world where centralized approval becomes necessary. These scholars continue to assert that the Internet needs to remain “Wikipedia-ean” in which there are no clear boundaries between users and creators. If the Internet is to continue as an innovative means of collaboration, it will need to preserve its legacy of adaptability and its democratic nature (Declan 2007).

Whatever its future holds, the Internet sits at the centre of virtually all media crossroads.

-- Posted January 12, 2009


Abbate, Janet. 1999. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Burman, Edward. 2003. Shift!: The Unfolding Internet Hype, Hope, and History. West Sussex, England: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

McCullagh, Declan. November 28, 2007. “News.com Talk: The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” News.com.

Murphy, Brian Martin. 2002. “A Critical History of the Internet.” Critical Perspectives on the Internet. Ed. Greg Elmer. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Segaller, Stephen. 1998. Nerds: A Brief History of the Internet. New York, NY: TV Books.

“Get Linked or Get Lost”: A History of the Internet

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