Nettalk : A Brief History of the 'Net
by Kelly Ward

This is the beginning of a new fall term, the first issue of a new publishing year for Bayline, so I can trot out the classic first-of-term homework assignment: How I spent my summer vacation. Although I won’t be able to be too specific about what I actually did because the deadline for turning in this article falls smack in the middle of that vacation!

Whatever happened, though, it seems that for their contributions to my vacation enjoyment, I should thank Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, Larry Roberts, Ray Tomlinson, Ben Segal, Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, and the host of others who, by their individual efforts and inventiveness, caused the Internet and the Whole Wild Whizbang to come into being.

This summer, thanks to the Internet, I bottled two cases of my own homemade Cabernet Sauvignon; I picnicked with a passel of friends from around the world whose acquaintance I would never have made were it not for the Internet; then I attended a week-long retreat for francophones near Carmel where we schmoozed, studied, ate, drank, and breathed nothing but French, a language that, despite two years of classroom study before I got online, was pretty much Greek to me (or as the French version of that expression would put it: c’était du chinois).

So this article is intended to be a paean to the Internet. I use the ‘Net quite a bit, for work and play, and I frequently marvel at it, but understanding how it came to be has never been my strong suit. To pay proper homage to this amazing information network, therefore, required more information than I had at the tips of my synapses. So I turned to the ‘Net itself to seek out some of what it has to offer on its own behalf: the whos, hows, whens, wheres, and whys. And guess what! As always, there’s too much good information available to be contained in this column. Who would’ve guessed? So while I may manage to offer up only a smattering of facts, I at least hope to point the interested reader toward some great resources.

The Roads and Crossroads of Internet History by Gregory Gromov (http://www.internetvalley.com/intval.html) is a nine-part history of the ‘Net posted by Internet Valley, Inc. While possibly not the first place in the pool where a non-swimmer should take the plunge, this colorful and quirky site can be a great resource where an informed ‘Net surfer can come and let hypertext do the walking and the inventors of the ‘Net themselves do the talking. Many visitors have found the eccentric choices of typeface and color to be disconcerting, but it’s worth clicking around here. Mr. Gromov tags the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union as the event that jump-started the process leading to development of the Internet. Dwight Eisenhower, wanting to counter this apparent Soviet advantage in technology, launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency, thus leading to the creation of ARPANET and thus eventually to this Internet we’ve all come to know and love. So my thanks go to you too, Ike.

Believe it or not, I became really engrossed in the story of the development of email found at http://www.fixe.com/wizards/email.html. This is an excerpt from the book Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. It’s an account of how some ingenious and ingenuous graduate students, out of their own energy and imagination, fashioned the Internet’s most vital feature (without which I could never submit my articles on time). Our library has three copies of the book, one of which I hope to have read well before you read this article.

It isn’t surprising to find a wealth of information resources at the site of The Internet Society (http://www.isoc.org). Their history page is a combination of links and original articles by some of the original stars of the ‘Net. But what thrilled me most was finally coming upon a link there to http://www.rfc-editor.org where a clickable list of all the RFCs ever produced can be found. An RFC (Request For Comments) is the stuff that the Internet was made from. The graduate students who were making all this stuff up as they went along recognized the need to work out something that resembled standards. But they also realized they shouldn’t appear too pushy while doing it. So the custom of submitting formal requests for comments was born on 7 April 1969 when Steve Crocker submitted RFC 1, entitled Host Software. It’s a little too dry for light reading, however. On the other hand, I can happily recommend RFC 1118, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Internet by Ed Krol. Produced in 1989, it’s an informational RFC explaining in reasonably comprehensible, if not quite layperson terms, everything an internaut of that era needed to know. These RFCs are primary sources for tracing the history of the ‘Net and I loved poking around in them.

The Internet Historical Society (http://internet-pioneers.org/links.html) is the place to be if you can certify yourself to be an "Internet Pioneer" (the Society’s honorific for a person who can account for his or her whereabouts on the ‘Net at least fifteen years ago). For example, if you had an email account before today’s date in 1984, you qualify to join the Society. Members are permitted to add their input to this attempt to document the Internet as it was before the bandwagon rolled through town dragging the rest of us on board. Those of us who aren’t pioneers will just have to settle for visiting this site and learning from the old-timers, and making use of the site’s impressive links page.

Finally, though, when you tire of delving into the Internet’s history, how about considering its geography? Martin Dodge, researcher at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London, presents An Atlas of Cyberspaces (http://www.cybergeography.org/atlas/atlas.html). Yes, this atlas features beautifully rendered visual representations of the Internet. Some are more informative than others, but the whole effect is gorgeous. I have little idea yet how one would use most of them, but I may be easily impressed because I keep going back for more.

What’s tickled me most in all my research for this article, is seeing how much the Net’s development has been dependent on serendipity and gumption. These brilliant, significant, even revolutionary innovations were essentially byproducts of something else and usually tangential to the original expressed purpose. Just as integrated circuits, the stuff that eventually made the whole PC revolution possible, were primarily developed to permit electronic devices to be miniaturized enough for use in the space race, the Internet as we know it was a byproduct of an effort by scientists to share very limited computing resources. The now truly worldwide Web started life as a relatively low priority initiative launched by a relatively low level department in the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, and it was really only intended for facilitating the sharing of the lab’s files. At the beginning, ARPANET wasn’t really intended for communications at all, let alone to lead to the creation of a ubiquitous worldwide communications system that seems now to be in the process of reshaping society.

How this reshaping of society by the influences of the Internet shakes out, whether toward greater democratization or greater commercialization, I have no better idea than anyone else. But in the meantime, thanks, Internet, if only for my enjoyable summer! I lift a glass of homemade Cabernet to you and look forward to seeing what you have in store for us in the coming year.

-- Kelly Ward, Public Health Library, UC Berkeley, 510-642-2511/ kward@library.berkeley.edu.



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