net.wars: Carbon-dating the Internet

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 09 October 2004

The demented three-year-old that rampages through all of Microsoft's software - My Music; MY Pictures; MY COMPUTER - seems to have been let loose on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Internet, which is around now sometime. Or isn't. It depends whose publicity department you listen to.

Wendy M Grossman

The year most people seem to be dating the Internet to is 1969, when the ARPAnet was first connected up. It's certainly tempting to set it then. That's the network that's generally agreed to be the most important precursor of the Internet. October 29 is the date UCLA has chosen for the official celebration. That's commemorating September 2, the day the first Internet message was sent from Leonard Kleinrock's UCLA computer lab.

That of course makes that date entirely correct as far as UCLA is concerned. But is that the Big Bang that created the Internet? Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyons, in their 1996 book Where Wizards Stay Up Late, document the efforts of Boston-based Bolt Beranek Newman to create the IMP machines that Kleinrock's lab used. BBN was where, in 1971, Ray Tomlinson inaugurated person-to-person network email and chose the now-ubiquitous @ symbol. But we can't take either 1969 or 1971 as the beginning of email itself, since that was first created for the time-sharing systems of the 1960s.

We could go back a few years earlier, to when Paul Baran, working at Rand Corporation, and Donald Davies, working at the UK's National Physical Laboratory independently came up with the idea of packet switching. That was a completely new way of looking at transmitting data across a network, and is the heart of the way the Internet as we know it operates.

Thing is, packet-switching could have remained just an idea. The telephone network, still the biggest network in the world, doesn't work that way. The TCP/IP protocols that arguably define the Internet weren't invented until 1974, by Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn. If you want to go, say, from the publication of their paper, you could pick May 1974, as Cerf mentions in a recent column. That would make the Internet 30 years old. But obviously it would be more logical to date from when the ARPAnet moved to using TCP/IP, which was 1983. In which case - glory be! -- the Internet turned 21 years old in January. That would mean it's newly an adult, although you'd never know it from the behaviour of some of the people on it. Perhaps they're still out on the now obligatory American coming-of-age pub crawl.

That year - 1983 - is a good pick for another reason. That's the year the domain name system as we now know it was designed and deployed. Without that relatively user-friendly veneer email would have been slower to take off, and the commercial Web as we know it might not exist at all. The domain name system did as much or more to make the Internet usable as graphical Web browsers did. Though 1969 can answer that by pointing out that the first-ever RFC, the Requests for Comments that define Internet standards, is dated April 7, 1969. That gives UCLA the right year, but puts it six months behind schedule.

Of course, to most people the Internet means the Web and email (and sometimes email also means the Web). In which case, you could go for 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN, invented it. That's straightforward enough. Except that the Web didn't really take off until graphical browsers turned up, which is not, as Netscape (now an AOL division) might like to claim, 1994, when the first version of Netscape was released, nor its precursor, Mosaic, which came out in 1993. When Mosaic came out, there were already a number of browser projects competing for attention, of which the earliest were Viola and Erwise, which were released within a month of each other in 1992.

There are still more dates you could consider: 1995, the year Bill Gates got net; 1979, the year Usenet was created; 1985, the year the supercomputing centres were created and linked to form NSFnet, which became an important Internet backbone; 1991, the year that acceptable use policies were changed to allow commercial traffic on the Internet; 1994, the year that the big online information services - AOL, CompuServe, Delphi - set up their Internet gateways.

In 1998, I appeared at a conference called "Technological Visions", hosted at the University of Southern California, and as part of the exercise felt required to produce some predictions. The papers eventually appeared earlier this year - ah, Internet time - in a book. Six years is of course long enough to look really silly, but one prediction seems clearly to have come true. I said that it would take constant vigilance to ensure that history did not record that Bill Gates invented the Internet. I think the general reaction was, "Nah, nah, come on, these people are still alive, and this stuff is all written down."

Yes. By PR departments. Who take the view that the Internet started when their company made its memorable contribution. In which case, I say to hell with it, the Internet is 13 years and four months old, because I got online in June 1991. So there.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).