A Short History of the Internet

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Daniel Davidson

Nov 23, 1993, 4:18:53 AM11/23/93
Subject: A short history of the Internet (Feb 1993) (Bruce Sterling)

By Bruce Sterling

bru...@well.sf.ca.us Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use From THE
CT 06753 $26/yr USA $31/yr other F&SF Science Column #5 "Internet"

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

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

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 irrelevant.

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

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 resources.

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 mother-of-all-computer-networks.

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 ideas.

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 transfers.

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

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

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.


= Daniel Davidson =
San Francisco State University

It is considered appropriate to sustain conditions which
are against the best interests of almost everyone.

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