The Origins of the Internet

How did the Internet start?  Who invented such a thing?  Why did it almost fail?

I recently finished a fascinating book called Where the Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hefner and Matthew Lyon.  Over the years of teaching MIS, I picked up on many odds facts surrounding the origins of the Internet, but never have I heard the full story.  In this book, the story is told in its entirety, starting with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the world’s first network ARPANET, to the inventions of email and TCP/IP.

The book is refreshingly not technical, making it accessible to all readers. Early parts of the book contain many human interest stories and if you love the stories of people, you’ll be pleasantly satisfied. At times, it was a little much for my tastes, as I would skim through some of the them.  But it did give a sense of the type of people who were involved in the ARPANET project and subsequent networks.

The book also shared stories about the early culture of the Internet, articulating how the Internet developed patterns of information sharing not witnessed before. Many of the early users were technical academic types, used to free expression, passionate about learning, and deeply interested in finding elegant technological solutions to their problems.  This was reflected in many of the early discussion groups.

I also learned about BBN, the company responsible for developing ARPANET.  ARPA itself contracted out the development of ARPANET to BBN.  Through this contract, mainframes in many universities were connected together so that resources could be shared across each.  Paradoxically, within 5 years, most traffic on the Internet was not due to sharing resources, but email.  The asynchronous nature of email made it ideal for communicating across vast distances to large numbers of people. Without email, however, the value of the Internet was marginal at best.  A fun academic tool, but not a world-changing technology.

And then, shortly after TCP/IP came out, an alternative protocol called OSI was published by the world’s leading standards organization ISO.  Yet, TCP/IP, with its flexibility and wide adoption in the US, spread quickly throughout the world and became the primary choice for networking.

The story stops before we get to Tim Bernes-Lee’s World Wide Web, but that shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the brilliance of the Internet and it’s recipe for success.  If you’re looking for a good history book on technology, I would definitely recommend reading Where the Wizards Stay Up Late.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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