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Early Internet - History of PC networking

Written by Ian Peter

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At the same time as the academic and research communities were creating a network for scientific purposes, a lot of parallel activity was going on elsewhere building computer networks as well.

A lot of the West Coast hackers belonged to the Homebrew Computer Club, founded by Lee Felsenstein. Lee had actually begun networking computers before the development of the PC, with his Community Memory project in the late 1970s. This system had dumb terminals (like computer screens with keyboards connected to one large computer that did the processing). These were placed in laundromats, the Whole Earth Access store, and community centres in San Francisco. This network used permanent links over a small geographical area rather than telephone lines and modems.

The first public bulletin board using personal computers and modems was written by Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss in Chicago in 1978 for the early amateur computers. It was about 1984 that the first bulletin boards using the IBM (Bill Gates/Microsoft) operating system and Apple operating systems began to be used. The most popular of these was FidoNet.

At that time the Internet technologies were only available on the UNIX computer operating system, which wasn't available on PCs. A piece of software called ufgate, developed by Tim Pozar, was one of the first bridges to connect the Fidonet world to the Internet world. An alternative approach undertaken by Scott Weikart and Steve Fram for the Association for Progressive Communications saw UNIX being made available on special low cost PCs in a distributed network.

In the community networking field early systems included PEN (Public Electronic Network) in Santa Monica, the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) in the Bay area of San Francisco, Big Sky Telegraph, and a host of small businesses with online universities, community bulletin boards, artists networks, seniors clubs, womens networks etc. ..

Gradually, as the 1980s came to a close, these networks also began joining the Internet for connectivity and adopted the TCP/IP standard. Now the PC networks and the academic networks were joined, and a platform was available for rapid global development.

By 1989 many of the new community networks had joined the Electronic Networkers Association, which preceded the Internet Society as the association for network builders. When they met in San Francisco in 1989, there was a lot of activity, plus some key words emerging - connectivity and interoperability. Not surprisingly in the California hippy culture f the time, the visions for these new networks included peace, love, joy, Marshall McLuhan's global village, the paperless office, electronic democracy, and probably Timothy Leary's Home Page. However, new large players such as America on Line (AOL) were also starting to make their presence felt, and a more commercial future was becoming obvious. Flower power gave way to communications protocols, and Silicon Valley just grew and grew.

PEN (The Public Electronic Network) in Santa Monica, may be able to claim the mantle of being the first local government based network of any size. Run by the local council, and conceived as a means for citizens to keep in touch with local government, its services included forms, access to the library catalogue, city and council information, and free email.

PEN started in February 1989, and by July 1991 had 3,500 users. One of the stories PEN told about the advantages of its system was the consultations they had with the homeless people of Santa Monica. The local council decided that it would be good to consult the homeless to find out what the city government could do for them. The homeless came back via email with simple needs - showers, washing facilities, and lockers. Santa Monica, a city of 96000 people at the time, was able to take this on board and provide some basic dignity for the homeless -and at a pretty low cost. This is probably the first example of electronic democracy in action.

Meanwhile, back in the academic and research world, there were many others who wanted to use the growing network but could not because of military control of Arpanet. Computer scientists at universities without defence contracts obtained funding from the National Science Foundation to form CSNet (Computer Science Network). Other academics who weren't computer scientists also began to show interest, so soon this started to become known as the "Computer and Science Network". In the early days, however, only a few academics used the Internet at most universities. It was not until the1990s that the penetration of Internet in academic circles became at all significant.

Because of fears of hackers, the Dept of Defence created a new separate network, MILNet, in 1982. By the mid-1980s, ARPANET was phased out. The role of connecting university and research networks was taken over by CSNet, later to become the NSF (or national science foundation) Network.

The NSFnet was to become the U.S. backbone for the global network known as the Internet, and a driving force in its early establishment. By 1989 ARPANet had disappeared, but the Information Superhighway was just around the corner.

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