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History of the Internet
History of the Internet

Revision as of 15:50, 27 September 2018

History of the Internet
By Bruce Sterling
[email protected]
Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use -- Distribute Freely but
			do not sell
From: THE!
F&SF Science Column #5
	Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, America's
foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem.  How
could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear war?
	Postnuclear America would need a command-and-control network,
linked from city to city, state to state, 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.  The center of the
network would be the very first place to go.
 	RAND mulled over this grim puzzle in deep military secrecy,
and arrived at a daring solution.  The RAND proposal (the brainchild
of RAND staffer Paul Baran) was made public in 1964.  In the first
place, 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.  It would be designed from the
get-go to transcend its own unreliability.  All the nodes 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.  Each
packet would wind its way through the network on an individual basis.
 	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 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 wouldn't matter; the packets would still stay airborne,
lateralled wildly across the field by whatever nodes happened to
survive.  This rather haphazard delivery system might be "inefficient"
in the usual sense (especially compared to, say, the telephone system)
-- but it would be extremely rugged.
 	During the 60s, this intriguing concept of a decentralized,
blastproof, packet-switching network was kicked around by RAND, MIT
and UCLA.  The National Physical Laboratory in Great Britain set up
the first test network on these principles in 1968.  Shortly
afterward, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency decided to
fund a larger, more ambitious project in the USA.  The nodes of the
network were to be high-speed supercomputers (or what passed for
supercomputers at the time).  These were rare and valuable machines
which were in real need of good solid networking, for the sake of
national research-and-development projects.
 	In fall 1969, the first such node was installed in UCLA.  By
December 1969, there were four nodes on the infant network, which was
named ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor.
 	The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-
speed transmission lines.  They could even be programmed remotely from
the other nodes.  Thanks to ARPANET, scientists and researchers could
share one another's computer facilities by long-distance.  This was a
very handy service, for computer-time was precious in the early '70s.
In 1971 there were fifteen nodes in ARPANET; by 1972, thirty-seven
nodes.  And it was good.
 	By the second year of operation, however, an odd fact became
clear.  ARPANET's 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 addresses
for electronic mail.  Not only were they using ARPANET for
person-to-person communication, but they were very enthusiastic about
this particular service -- far more enthusiastic than they were about
long-distance computation.
 	It wasn't long before the invention of the mailing-list, an
ARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message could be
sent automatically to large numbers of network subscribers.
Interestingly, one of the first really big mailing-lists was "SF-
LOVERS," for science fiction fans.  Discussing science fiction on the
network was not work-related and was frowned upon by many ARPANET
computer administrators, but this didn't stop it from happening.
 	Throughout the '70s, ARPA's network grew.  Its decentralized
structure made expansion easy.  Unlike standard corporate computer
networks, the ARPA network could accommodate many different kinds of
machine.  As long as individual machines could speak the
packet-switching lingua franca of the new, anarchic network, their
brand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, were
 	The ARPA's original standard for communication was known as
NCP, "Network Control Protocol," but as time passed and the technique
advanced, NCP was superceded by a higher-level, more sophisticated
standard known as TCP/IP.  TCP, or "Transmission Control Protocol,"
converts messages into streams of packets at the source, then
reassembles them back into messages at the destination.  IP, or
"Internet Protocol," handles the addressing, seeing to it that packets
are routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networks
with multiple standards -- not only ARPA's pioneering NCP standard,
but others like Ethernet, FDDI, and X.25.
 	As early as 1977, TCP/IP was being used by other networks to
link to ARPANET.  ARPANET itself remained fairly tightly controlled,
at least until 1983, when its military segment broke off and became
MILNET.  But TCP/IP linked them all.  And ARPANET itself, though it
was growing, became a smaller and smaller neighborhood amid the vastly
growing galaxy of other linked machines.
 	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 the digital embrace of the Internet, and messily
adhered.  Since the software called TCP/IP was public-domain, and the
basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by its very
nature, it was 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
 	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.  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, 1990.  And
other government agencies leapt in: NASA, the National Institutes of
Health, the Department of Energy, each of them maintaining a digital
satrapy in the Internet confederation.
 	The nodes in this growing network-of-networks were divvied 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.  (Graceless abbreviations such as this are a standard feature
of the TCP/IP protocols.)  Gov, Mil, and Edu denoted governmental,
military and educational institutions, which were, of course, the
pioneers, since ARPANET had begun as a high-tech research exercise in
national security.  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 1989, a happy victim of its
own overwhelming success.  Its users scarcely noticed, for ARPANET's
functions not only continued but steadily improved.  The use of TCP/IP
standards for computer networking is now global.  In 1971, a mere
twenty-one 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.  Three million, possibly four million people use this gigantic
 	The Internet is especially popular among scientists, and is
probably the most important scientific instrument of the late
twentieth century.  The powerful, sophisticated access that it
provides to specialized data and personal communication has sped up
the pace of scientific research enormously.
 	The Internet's pace of growth in the early 1990s is
spectacular, almost ferocious.  It is spreading faster than cellular
phones, faster than fax machines.  Last year the Internet was growing
at a rate of twenty percent a *month.* The number of "host" machines
with direct connection to TCP/IP has been doubling every year since
1988.  The Internet is moving out of its original base in military and
research institutions, into elementary and high schools, as well as
into public libraries and the commercial sector.
 	Why do people want to be "on the Internet?"  One of the main
reasons is simple freedom.  The Internet is a rare example of a true,
modern, functional anarchy.  There is no "Internet Inc."  There are no
official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders.
In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long
as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly
technical, not social or political.  (There has been some struggle
over commercial use of the Internet, but that situation is changing as
businesses supply their own links).
 	The Internet is also a bargain.  The Internet as a whole,
unlike the phone system, doesn't charge for long-distance service.
And unlike most commercial computer networks, it doesn't charge for
access time, either.  In fact the "Internet" itself, which doesn't
even officially exist as an entity, never "charges" for anything.
Each group of people accessing the Internet is responsible for their
own machine and their own section of line.
 	The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural,
but it makes a certain deep and basic sense.  It's rather like the
"anarchy" of the English language.  Nobody rents English, and nobody
owns English.  As an English-speaking person, it's up to you to learn
how to speak English properly and make whatever use you please of it
(though the government provides certain subsidies to help you learn to
read and write a bit).  Otherwise, everybody just sort of pitches in,
and somehow the thing evolves on its own, and somehow turns out
workable.  And interesting.  Fascinating, even.  Though a lot of
people earn their living from using and exploiting and teaching
English, "English" as an institution is public property, a public
good.  Much the same goes for the Internet.  Would English be improved
if the "The English Language, Inc."  had a board of directors and a
chief executive officer, or a President and a Congress?  There'd
probably be a lot fewer new words in English, and a lot fewer new
	People on the Internet feel much the same way about their own
institution.  It's an institution that resists institutionalization.
The Internet belongs to everyone and no one.
 	Still, its various interest groups all have a claim.  Business
people want the Internet put on a sounder financial footing.
Government people want the Internet more fully regulated.  Academics
want it dedicated exclusively to scholarly research.  Military people
want it spy-proof and secure.  And so on and so on.
 	All these sources of conflict remain in a stumbling balance
today, and the Internet, so far, remains in a thrivingly anarchical
condition.  Once upon a time, the NSFnet's high-speed, high-capacity
lines were known as the "Internet Backbone," and their owners could
rather lord it over the rest of the Internet; but today there are
"backbones" in Canada, Japan, and Europe, and even privately owned
commercial Internet backbones specially created for carrying business
traffic.  Today, even privately owned desktop computers can become
Internet nodes.  You can carry one under your arm.  Soon, perhaps, on
your wrist.
	But what does one *do* with the Internet?  Four things,
basically: mail, discussion groups, long-distance computing, and file
 	Internet mail is "e-mail," electronic mail, faster by several
orders of magnitude than the US Mail, which is scornfully known by
Internet regulars as "snailmail."  Internet mail is somewhat like fax.
It's electronic text.  But you don't have to pay for it (at least not
directly), and it's global in scope.  E-mail can also send software
and certain forms of compressed digital imagery.  New forms of mail
are in the works.
 	The discussion groups, or "newsgroups," are a world of their
own.  This world of news, debate and argument is generally known as
"USENET. "  USENET is, in point of fact, quite different from the
Internet.  USENET is rather like an enormous billowing crowd of
gossipy, news-hungry people, wandering in and through the Internet on
their way to various private backyard barbecues.  USENET is not so
much a physical network as a set of social conventions.  In any case,
at the moment there are some 2,500 separate newsgroups on USENET, and
their discussions generate about 7 million words of typed commentary
every single day.  Naturally there is a vast amount of talk about
computers on USENET, but the variety of subjects discussed is
enormous, and it's growing larger all the time.  USENET also
distributes various free electronic journals and publications.
 	Both netnews and e-mail are very widely available, even
outside the high-speed core of the Internet itself.  News and e-mail
are easily available over common phone-lines, from Internet fringe-
realms like BITnet, UUCP and Fidonet.  The last two Internet services,
long-distance computing and file transfer, require what is known as
"direct Internet access" -- using TCP/IP.
 	Long-distance computing was an original inspiration for
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.
 	File transfers allow Internet users to access remote machines
and retrieve programs or text.  Many Internet computers -- some two
thousand of them, so far -- allow any person to access them
anonymously, and to simply copy their public files, free of charge.
This is no small deal, since entire books can be transferred through
direct Internet access in a matter of minutes.  Today, in 1992, there
are over a million such public files available to anyone who asks for
them (and many more millions of files are available to people with
accounts).  Internet file-transfers are becoming a new form of
publishing, in which the reader simply electronically copies the work
on demand, in any quantity he or she wants, for free.  New Internet
programs, such as "archie," "gopher," and "WAIS," have been developed
to catalog and explore these enormous archives of material.
 	The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading
like bread-mold.  Any computer of sufficient power is a potential
spore for the Internet, and today such computers sell for less than
$2,000 and are in the hands of people all over the world.  ARPA's
network, designed to assure control of a ravaged society after a
nuclear holocaust, has been superceded 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 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 still very much in the act.  NREN, the National
Research and Education Network, was approved by the US Congress in
fall 1991, as a five-year, $2 billion project to upgrade the Internet
"backbone."  NREN will be some fifty times faster than the fastest
network available today, allowing the electronic transfer of the
entire Encyclopedia Britannica in one hot second.  Computer networks
worldwide will feature 3-D animated graphics, radio and cellular
phone-links to portable computers, as well as fax, voice, and high-
definition television.  A multimedia global circus!
 	Or so it's hoped -- and planned.  The real Internet of the
future may bear very little resemblance to today's plans.  Planning
has never seemed to have much to do with the seething, fungal
development of the Internet.  After all, today's Internet bears little
resemblance to those original grim plans for RAND's post- holocaust
command grid.  It's a fine and happy irony.
 	How does one get access to the Internet?  Well -- if you don't
have a computer and a modem, get one.  Your computer can act as a
terminal, and you can use an ordinary telephone line to connect to an
Internet-linked machine.  These slower and simpler adjuncts to the
Internet can provide you with the netnews discussion groups and your
own e-mail address.  These are services worth having -- though if you
only have mail and news, you're not actually "on the Internet" proper.
 	If you're on a campus, your university may have direct
"dedicated access" to high-speed Internet TCP/IP lines.  Apply for an
Internet account on a dedicated campus machine, and you may be able to
get those hot-dog long-distance computing and file-transfer functions.
Some cities, such as Cleveland, supply "freenet" community access.
Businesses increasingly have Internet access, and are willing to sell
it to subscribers.  The standard fee is about $40 a month -- about the
same as TV cable service.
 	As the Nineties proceed, finding a link to the Internet will
become much cheaper and easier.  Its ease of use will also improve,
which is fine news, for the savage UNIX interface of TCP/IP leaves
plenty of room for advancements in user-friendliness.  Learning the
Internet now, or at least learning about it, is wise.  By the turn of
the century, "network literacy," like "computer literacy" before it,
will be forcing itself into the very texture of your life.
For Further Reading:
The Whole Internet Catalog & User's Guide by Ed Krol.  (1992) O'Reilly
and Associates, Inc.  A clear, non-jargonized introduction to the
intimidating business of network literacy.  Many computer-
documentation manuals attempt to be funny.  Mr. Krol's book is
*actually* funny.
The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide.  by
John Quarterman.  Digital Press: Bedford, MA. (1990) Massive and
highly technical compendium detailing the mind-boggling scope and
complexity of our newly networked planet.
The Internet Companion by Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C. Ryer (1992)
Addison Wesley.  Evangelical etiquette guide to the Internet featuring
anecdotal tales of life-changing Internet experiences.  Foreword by
Senator Al Gore.
Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide by Brendan P.
Kehoe (1992) Prentice Hall. Brief but useful Internet guide with
plenty of good advice on useful machines to paw over for data.  Mr
Kehoe's guide bears the singularly wonderful distinction of being
available in electronic form free of charge.  I'm doing the same with
all my F&SF Science articles, including, of course, this one.  My own
Internet address is [email protected]