Ever wondered how the internet began and who was responsible?
by Simon Leadbetter
I spend most of my waking hours, somehow connected to the Internet. Whether that's work, shopping, chatting or Tweeting. But who were the people behind this thing that has consumed so much of my life?
Welcome everyone to the first in a series of presentations that will attempt to explain the history of the Internet.
Considering the impact the internet has had on all our lives, it's amazing that we don't know more about the people who created it.
Do you know any names of the key people involved? I must admit I didn't.
But believe it or not, it didn't start with a who, but a what…
This story begins with a satellite…
The Sputnik, launched in 1957 by the then Soviet Union, was the catalyst for the 'global interconnected computer network' that we call the internet.
When the Cold War was at its peak, the United States and the Soviet Union considered each other enemies, and the Americans were shocked by the news that the Soviet Union had the capabilities to launch a satellite into space.
They were convinced that if they had achieved this impressive feat, then it was feasible that they could launch a missile attack on North America.
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set-up the Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known as ARPA) as a direct response to Sputnik's launch. ARPA's sole purpose was to give the United States a technological edge over other countries, and one important part of their mission was the advancement of computer sciences.
So let's meet Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, known simply as J.C.R. or "Lick".
Licklider was appointed head of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at ARPA in October 1962.
As well as possessing an unusual surname, he was also the visionary that wanted to create an "Intergalactic Network" – said to be the first conception of what would become the internet.
We should pause for a moment to consider what computers were like in the 1950s.
They were enormous devices that filled an entire room – often serving only a single function.
ARPA's goal was to link different computers together, both to increase overall computer power and to decentralise information storage. Quite a challenge in the 1950s.
The latter point was extremely pertinent, as it was important for the U.S. government to find a way to access and distribute information should there be a catastrophic event, such as a nuclear attack. If a bomb hit an important computer line, information flow would stop immediately. But if there were a way to network computers, other parts of the system could keep running even if one of the links were destroyed.
So, in 1968, ARPA enlisted the help of the company Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) to create a computer network. The team was diverse, consisting of electrical engineers, computer scientists, applied mathematicians and graduate students.
Their brief, set by ARPA, was to create a network that connected four computers running on four different operating systems.
This four-node network they created was called ARPANET.
ARPA chose the initial computer sites based on pre-existing relationships with the United States government – consisting mainly of universities.
Each site had its own team of engineers responsible for connecting the university's computer to the ARPANET.
The four host computers in the initial ARPANET structure included:
- Stanford research Institute
- University of California
- University of Utah
In August 1969, the UCLA team hooked up its host computer to an Interface Messaging Processor (this is the piece of kit that made it all possible), making it the first of the four sites to connect into ARPANET.
Within a few days, the two computers could exchange information, making it the first remotely networked computer.
In October the second IMP was added to the system, and at 10:30 pm on 29th October, Stanford and UCLA's computers communicated with each other over a 50 kilobit per second (kbps) phone line.
However, on the first attempt, the system crashed before UCLA could send a complete command to the Stanford computer but, fortunately, everything worked on the second try.
The final two host computers joined the network before the end of 1969.
For the first time, scientists could harness the power of multiple computers in remote locations.
Of course, this was all ground-breaking stuff so there were no systems in place to allow the different computers to share information. Therefore, everything had to be invented from scratch.
One of the most important decisions the ARPANET team made was to create a standardised system of protocols that the host computers and IMPs would use to communicate to each other.
A group called the Network Working Group was formed to take on this job.
Early on, the team recognised the need for two specific tasks:
- create a way for users to log in to the system remotely, and
- make it possible to move files from one machine to another
Remote login later became known as Telnet, and moving files back and forth became part of the File Transfer Protocol (FTP), which we still use to this day.
Four computers seemed some what limited, so the team began to design a new protocol called the join Network Control Program (NCP).
NCP allowed computers to communicate within the network, but was also capable of allowing more hosts to the network.
As ARPANET increased in size, NCP became more important. And to manage all the hosts on the network, NCP established the practice of using numeric host addresses for each computer (or node) on the network, which was a forerunner to today's domain name servers (DNS).
NCP also provided the groundwork for the elaborately named Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which was designed by Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf.
They developed this system that determines how information moves through the Internet (in packets) and, importantly, verifies that the information gets to where it's going.
In 1983, ARPANET switched to the TCP/IP protocol, which is the same set of rules the Internet follows today.
Between 1969 and 1977, ARPANET grew from a network of four computer sites to one with 111 computers.
And Using satellite links, ARPANET connected computer systems in the United States to computers in Hawaii and Europe.
However, even though the network had grown, few people actually had access to the system. The public still remained unaware of ARPANET's existence.
In 1986, five supercomputer centres formed a network called NSFNET and before long, NSFNET grew to include several universities.
It was at this point, when other networks began to consolidate into larger systems, people referred to this collection of networks as inter-networking, or the Internet for short.
ARPA's ingenuity wasn't to end there.
In 1972, programmer Ray Tomlinson developed an electronic mail system for ARPANET by adapting a pair of Tenex operating system applications called SNDMSG and READMAIL.
Tomlinson chose the '@' symbol to join together the names of the recipient and the recipient's host computer, a convention will still use today.
And no, he didn't invent the symbol, it existed long before the Internet. Here's an example from 1674, which I'm sure you'll agree predates event the Internet.
By the late 80's, ARPANET's infrastructure was now beginning to show its age. The IMPs weren't as efficient or powerful as the computer nodes in other networks, so organisations who were on ARPANET began to defect to other networks, mainly NSFNET.
In 1990, DARPA (the new name for ARPA) pulled the plug on the ARPANET project, as the organisation's goals had all been met.
It's now time we met a person who some of you may recognise.
In 1990, whilst working as a contractor at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee developed a system designed to simplify navigation on the Internet, based on a concept called hypertext.
In time, this system would become known as the World Wide Web and the first Web site built was CERN's own, launched on 6 August 1991.
The first web page address provided information about the WWW project. This screen grab was taken from a version of the site in 1992.
Of course, it didn't take long for people to mistakenly identify the Internet and the Web as the same thing.
So to clarify: The Internet is a global interconnection of computer networks; the World Wide Web is a way to navigate this massive network.
Early Internet users were mainly government and military employees, graduate students and computer scientists.
However, as the World Wide Web made the Internet much more accessible, colleges and universities began to connect, and businesses soon followed.
By 1994, Internet commerce had become a reality. 1994 was also the year when Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at MIT – consisting of a group of companies interested in creating standards to improve the quality of the Web.
Tim Berners-Lee made his idea available freely, with no patent and no royalties and the World Wide Web Consortium decided that its standards should be based on royalty-free technology, so that they could easily be adopted by anyone.
We are now at the end of this epic journey, I'd like to share with you an amazing discovery.
It appears that Michael Cane found time during the filming of Get Carter, to help create the Internet as a lab assistant at ARPA. I wonder if he knows?
I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to the Internet.
My next presentation will explore the World Wide Web in more detail and attempt to explain how it all works.