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The beginnings of the Internet

Written by Ian Peter

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It will help in discussing the beginnings of the Internet to define what the Internet is. Now you can get as many different definitions of what the Internet is as you can dictionaries. But for must of us, the simple description, a "worldwide system of interconnected networks and computers" is pretty good and adequate.

But when people get more technical, they tend to add to the definition terms such as "a network that uses the Transmission Control Protocol - Internet protocol" (or TCP/IP).

Many people have heard that the Internet began with some military computers in the Pentagon called Arpanet in 1969. The theory goes on to suggest that the network was designed to survive a nuclear attack. However, whichever definition of what the Internet is we use, neither the Pentagon nor 1969 hold up as the time and place the Internet was invented. A project which began in the Pentagon that year, called Arpanet, gave birth to the Internet protocols sometime later (during the 1970's), but 1969 was not the Internet's beginnings. Surviving a nuclear attack was not Arpanet's motivation, nor was building a global communications network.

Bob Taylor, the Pentagon official who was in charge of the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or Arpanet) program, insists that the purpose was not military, but scientific. The nuclear attack theory was never part of the design. Nor was an Internet in the sense we know it part of the Pentagon's 1969 thinking. Larry Roberts, who was employed by Bob Taylor to build the Arpanet network, states that Arpanet was never intended to link people or be a communications and information facility.

Arpanet was about time-sharing. Time sharing tried to make it possible for research institutions to use the processing power of other institutions computers when they had large calculations to do that required more power, or when someone else's facility might do the job better.

What Arpanet did in 1969 that was important was to develop a variation of a technique called packet switching. In 1965, before Arpanet came into existence, an Englishman called Donald Davies had proposed a similar facility to Arpanet in the United Kingdom, the NPL Data Communications Network. It never got funded; but Donald Davies did develop the concept of packet switching, a means by which messages can travel from point to point across a network. Although others in the USA were working on packet switching techniques at the same time (notably Leonard Kleinrock and Paul Baran), it was the UK version that Arpanet first adopted.

However, although Arpanet developed packet switching, Larry Roberts makes it clear that sending messages between people was "not an important motivation for a network of scientific computers". Its purpose was to allow people in diverse locations to utilise time on other computers.

It never really worked as an idea - for a start, all the computers had different operating systems and versions and programs, and using someone else's machine was very difficult: but as well, by the time some of these problems were being overcome, mini-computers had appeared on the scene and the economics of time sharing had changed dramatically.

So it's reasonable to say that ARPANET failed in its purpose, but in the process it made some significant discoveries that were to result in the creation of the first Internet. These included email developments, packet switching implementations, and development of the (Transport Control Protocol - Internet Protocol) or TCP/IP.

TCP/IP is the backbone protocol which technical people claim is the basis for determining what the Internet is. It was developed in the 1970s in California by Vinton Cerf, Bob Kahn, Bob Braden, Jon Postel and other members of the Networking Group headed by Steve Crocker. TCP/IP was developed to solve problems with earlier attempts at communication between computers undertaken by ARPANET.

Vinton Cerf had worked on the earlier Arpanet protocols while at the University of California in Los Angeles from 1968-1972. He moved to Stanford University in late 1972. At the same time Bob Kahn, who had been the chief architect of the Arpanet while working for contracting form Bolt Beranek and Newman, left that firm and joined ARPANET.

In October 1972 ARPANET publicly demonstrated their system for the first time at the International Computer Communications Conference in Washington DC. Following that meeting, an International Networking Group chaired by Vinton Cerf was established.

Bob Kahn visited Stanford in the spring of 1973 and he and Vint Cerf discussed the problem of interconnecting multiple packet networks that were NOT identical. They developed the basic concepts of TCP at that time, and presented it to the newly established International Networking Group. This meeting and this development really rates as the beginning of the Internet.

Nobody knows who first used the word Internet - it just became a shortcut around this time for "internetworking". The earliest written use of the word appears to be by Vint Cerf in 1974.

By 1975 the first prototype was being tested. A few more years were spent on technical development, and in 1978 TCP/IPv4 was released.

It would be some time before it became available to the rest of us. In fact, TCP/IP was not even added to Arpanet officially until 1983.

So we can see that the Internet began as an unanticipated result of an unsuccessful military and academic research program component, and was more a product of the US west coast culture of the 1980s than a product of the post-war Pentagon era.

However, is that the only story of how the Internet began? Not really - read on here.

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