Monthly Archives: May 2022

A Web Around the World, Part 10: A Web of Associations

While wide-area computer networking, packet switching, and the Internet were coming of age, all of the individual computers on the wire were becoming exponentially faster, exponentially more capacious internally, and exponentially smaller externally. The pace of their evolution was unprecedented in the history of technology; had automobiles been improved at a similar rate, the Ford Model T would have gone supersonic within ten years of its introduction. We should take a moment now to find out why and how such a torrid pace was maintained.

As Claude Shannon and others realized before World War II, a digital computer in the abstract is an elaborate exercise in boolean logic, a dynamic matrix of on-off switches — or, if you like, of ones and zeroes. The more of these switches a computer has, the more it can be and do. The first Turing-complete digital computers, such as ENIAC and Whirlwind, implemented their logical switches using vacuum tubes, a venerable technology inherited from telephony. Each vacuum tube was about as big as an incandescent light bulb, consumed a similar amount of power, and tended to burn out almost as frequently. These factors made the computers which employed vacuum tubes massive edifices that required as much power as the typical city block, even as they struggled to maintain an uptime of more than 50 percent — and all for the tiniest sliver of one percent of the overall throughput of the smartphones we carry in our pockets today. Computers of this generation were so huge, expensive, and maintenance-heavy in relation to what they could actually be used to accomplish that they were largely limited to government-funded research institutions and military applications.

Computing’s first dramatic leap forward in terms of its basic technological underpinnings also came courtesy of telephony. More specifically, it came in the form of the transistor, a technology which had been invented at Bell Labs in December of 1947 with the aim of improving telephone switching circuits. A transistor could function as a logical switch just as a vacuum tube could, but it was a minute fraction of the size, consumed vastly less power, and was infinitely more reliable. The computers which IBM built for the SAGE project during the 1950s straddled this technological divide, employing a mixture of vacuum tubes and transistors. But by 1960, the computer industry had fully and permanently embraced the transistor. While still huge and unwieldy by modern standards, computers of this era were practical and cost-effective for a much broader range of applications than their predecessors had been; corporate computing started in earnest in the transistor era.

Nevertheless, wiring together tens of thousands of discrete transistors remained a daunting task for manufacturers, and the most high-powered computers still tended to fill large rooms if not entire building floors. Thankfully, a better way was in the offing. Already in 1958, a Texas Instruments engineer named Jack Kilby had come up with the idea of the integrated circuit: a collection of miniaturized transistors and other electrical components embedded in a silicon wafer, the whole being suitable for stamping out quickly in great quantities by automated machinery. Kilby invented, in other words, the soon-to-be ubiquitous computer chip, which could be wired together with its mates to produce computers that were not only smaller but easier and cheaper to manufacture than those that had come before. By the mid-1960s, the industry was already in the midst of the transition from discrete transistors to integrated circuits, producing some machines that were no larger than a refrigerator; among these was the Honeywell 516, the computer which was turned into the world’s first network router.

As chip-fabrication systems improved, designers were able to miniaturize the circuitry on the wafers more and more, allowing ever more computing horsepower to be packed into a given amount of physical space. An engineer named Gordon Moore proposed the principle that has become known as Moore’s Law: he calculated that the number of transistors which can be stamped into a chip of a given size doubles every second year.[1]When he first stated his law in 1965, Moore actually proposed a doubling every single year, but revised his calculations in 1975. In July of 1968, Moore and a colleague named Robert Noyce formed the chip maker known as Intel to make the most of Moore’s Law. The company has remained on the cutting edge of chip fabrication to this day.

The next step was perhaps inevitable, but it nevertheless occurred almost by accident. In 1971, an Intel engineer named Federico Faggin put all of the circuits making up a computer’s arithmetic, logic, and control units — the central “brain” of a computer — onto a single chip. And so the microprocessor was born. No one involved with the project at the time anticipated that the Intel 4004 central-processing unit would open the door to a new generation of general-purpose “microcomputers” that were small enough to sit on desktops and cheap enough to be purchased by ordinary households. Faggin and his colleagues rather saw the 4004 as a fairly modest, incremental advancement of the state of the art, which would be deployed strictly to assist bigger computers by serving as the brains of disk controllers and other single-purpose peripherals. Before we rush to judge them too harshly for their lack of vision, we should remember that they are far from the only inventors in history who have failed to grasp the real importance of their creations.

At any rate, it was left to independent tinkerers who had been dreaming of owning a computer of their own for years, and who now saw in the microprocessor the opportunity to do just that, to invent the personal computer as we know it. The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics sports one of the most famous magazine covers in the history of American technology: it announces the $439 Altair 8800, from a tiny Albuquerque, New Mexico-based company known as MITS. The Altair was nothing less than a complete put-it-together-yourself microcomputer kit, built around the Intel 8080 microprocessor, a successor model to the 4004.

The magazine cover that launched a technological revolution.

The next milestone came in 1977, when three separate companies announced three separate pre-assembled, plug-em-in-and-go personal computers: the Apple II, the Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Commodore PET. In terms of raw computing power, these machines were a joke compared to the latest institutional hardware. Nonetheless, they were real, Turing-complete computers that many people could afford to buy and proceed to tinker with to their heart’s content right in their own homes. They truly were personal computers: their buyers didn’t have to share them with anyone. It is difficult to fully express today just how extraordinary an idea this was in 1977.

This very website’s early years were dedicated to exploring some of the many things such people got up to with their new dream machines, so I won’t belabor the subject here. Suffice to say that those first personal computers were, although of limited practical utility, endlessly fascinating engines of creativity and discovery for those willing and able to engage with them on their own terms. People wrote programs on them, drew pictures and composed music, and of course played games, just as their counterparts on the bigger machines had been doing for quite some time. And then, too, some of them went online.

The first microcomputer modems hit the market the same year as the trinity of 1977. They operated on the same principles as the modems developed for the SAGE project a quarter-century before — albeit even more slowly. Hobbyists could thus begin experimenting with connecting their otherwise discrete microcomputers together, at least for the duration of a phone call.

But some entrepreneurs had grander ambitions. In July of 1979, not one but two subscription-based online services, known as CompuServe and The Source, were announced almost simultaneously. Soon anyone with a computer, a modem, and the requisite disposal income could dial them up to socialize with others, entertain themselves, and access a growing range of useful information.

Again, I’ve written about this subject in some detail before, so I won’t do so at length here. I do want to point out, however, that many of J.C.R. Licklider’s fondest predictions for the computer networks of the future first became a reality on the dozen or so of these commercial online services that managed to attract significant numbers of subscribers over the years. It was here, even more so than on the early Internet proper, that his prognostications about communities based on mutual interest rather than geographical proximity proved their prescience. Online chatting, online dating, online gaming, online travel reservations, and online shopping first took hold here, first became a fact of life for people sitting in their living rooms. People who seldom or never met one another face to face or even heard one another’s voices formed relationships that felt as real and as present in their day-to-day lives as any others — a new phenomenon in the history of social interaction. At their peak circa 1995, the commercial online services had more than 3.5 million subscribers in all.

Yet these services failed to live up to the entirety of Licklider’s old dream of an Intergalactic Computer Network. They were communities, yes, but not quite networks in the sense of the Internet. Each of them lived on a single big mainframe, or at most a cluster of them, in a single data center, which you dialed into using your microcomputer. Once online, you could interact in real time with the hundreds or thousands of others who might have dialed in at the same time, but you couldn’t go outside the walled garden of the service to which you’d chosen to subscribe. That is to say, if you’d chosen to sign up with CompuServe, you couldn’t talk to someone who had chosen The Source. And whereas the Internet was anarchic by design, the commercial online services were steered by the iron hands of the companies who had set them up. Although individual subscribers could and often did contribute content and in some ways set the tone of the services they used, they did so always at the sufferance of their corporate overlords.

Through much of the fifteen years or so that the commercial services reigned supreme, many or most microcomputer owners failed to even realize that an alternative called the Internet existed. Which is not to say that the Internet was without its own form of social life. Its more casual side centered on an online institution known as Usenet, which had arrived on the scene in late 1979, almost simultaneously with the first commercial services.

At bottom, Usenet was (and is) a set of protocols for sharing public messages, just as email served that purpose for private ones. What set it apart from the bustling public forums on services like CompuServe was its determinedly non-centralized nature. Usenet as a whole was a network of many servers, each storing a local copy of its many “newsgroups,” or forums for discussions on particular topics. Users could read and post messages using any of the servers, either by sitting in front of its own keyboard and monitor or, more commonly, through some form of remote connection. When a user posted a new message to a server, it sent it on to several other servers, which were then expected to send it further, until the message had propagated through the whole network of Usenet servers. The system’s asynchronous nature could distort conversations; messages reached different servers at different times, which meant you could all too easily find yourself replying to a post that had already been retracted, or making a point someone else had already made before you. But on the other hand, Usenet was almost impossible to break completely — just like the Internet itself.

Strictly speaking, Usenet did not depend on the Internet for its existence. As far as it was concerned, its servers could pass messages among themselves in whatever way they found most convenient. In its first few years, this sometimes meant that they dialed one another up directly over ordinary phone lines and talked via modem. As it matured into a mainstay of hacker culture, however, Usenet gradually became almost inseparable from the Internet itself in the minds of most of its users.

From the three servers that marked its inauguration in 1979, Usenet expanded to 11,000 by 1988. The discussions that took place there didn’t quite encompass the whole of the human experience equally; the demographics of the hacker user base meant that computer programming tended to get more play than knitting, Pink Floyd more play than Madonna, and science-fiction novels more play than romances. Still, the newsgroups were nothing if not energetic and free-wheeling. For better or for worse, they regularly went places the commercial online services didn’t dare allow. For example, Usenet became one of the original bastions of online pornography, first in the form of fevered textual fantasies, then in the somehow even more quaint form of “ASCII art,” and finally, once enough computers had the graphics capabilities to make it worthwhile, as actual digitized photographs. In light of this, some folks expressed relief that it was downright difficult to get access to Usenet and the rest of the Internet if one didn’t teach or attend classes at a university, or work at a tech company or government agency.

The perception of the Internet as a lawless jungle, more exciting but also more dangerous than the neatly trimmed gardens of the commercial online services, was cemented by the Morris Worm, which was featured on the front page of the New York Times for four straight days in December of 1988. Created by a 23-year-old Cornell University graduate student named Robert Tappan Morris, it served as many people’s ironic first notice that a network called the Internet existed at all. The exploit, which its creator later insisted had been meant only as a harmless prank, spread by attaching itself to some of the core networking applications used by Unix, a powerful and flexible operating system that was by far the most popular among Internet-connected computers at the time. The Morris Worm came as close as anything ever has to bringing the entire Internet down when its exponential rate of growth effectively turned it into a network-wide denial-of-service attack — again, accidentally, if its creator is to be believed. (Morris himself came very close to a prison sentence, but escaped with three years of probation, a $10,000 fine, and 400 hours of community service, after which he went on to a lucrative career in the tech sector at the height of the dot-com boom.)

Attitudes toward the Internet in the less rarefied wings of the computing press had barely begun to change even by the beginning of the 1990s. An article from the issue of InfoWorld dated February 4, 1991, encapsulates the contemporary perceptions among everyday personal-computer owners of this “vast collection of networks” which is “a mystery even to people who call it home.”

It is a highway of ideas, a collective brain for the nation’s scientists, and perhaps the world’s most important computer bulletin board. Connecting all the great research institutions, a large network known collectively as the Internet is where scientists, researchers, and thousands of ordinary computer users get their daily fix of news and gossip.

But it is the same network whose traffic is occasionally dominated by X-rated graphics files, UFO sighting reports, and other “recreational” topics. It is the network where renegade “worm” programs and hackers occasionally make the news.

As with all communities, this electronic village has both high- and low-brow neighborhoods, and residents of one sometimes live in the other.

What most people call the Internet is really a jumble of networks rooted in academic and research institutions. Together these networks connect over 40 countries, providing electronic mail, file transfer, remote login, software archives, and news to users on 2000 networks.

Think of a place where serious science comes from, whether it’s MIT, the national laboratories, a university, or [a] private enterprise, [and] chances are you’ll find an Internet address. Add [together] all the major sites, and you have the seeds of what detractors sometimes call “Anarchy Net.”

Many people find the Internet to be shrouded in a cloud of mystery, perhaps even intrigue.

With addresses composed of what look like contractions surrounded by ‘!’s, ‘@’s, and ‘.’s, even Internet electronic mail seems to be from another world. Never mind that these “bangs,” “at signs,” and “dots” create an addressing system valid worldwide; simply getting an Internet address can be difficult if you don’t know whom to ask. Unlike CompuServe or one of the other email services, there isn’t a single point of contact. There are as many ways to get “on” the Internet as there are nodes.

At the same time, this complexity serves to keep “outsiders” off the network, effectively limiting access to the world’s technological elite.

The author of this article would doubtless have been shocked to learn that within just four or five years this confusing, seemingly willfully off-putting network of scientists and computer nerds would become the hottest buzzword in media, and that absolutely everybody, from your grandmother to your kids’ grade-school teacher, would be rushing to get onto this Internet thing before they were left behind, even as stalwart rocks of the online ecosystem of 1991 like CompuServe would already be well on their way to becoming relics of a bygone age.

The Internet had begun in the United States, and the locus of the early mainstream excitement over it would soon return there. In between, though, the stroke of inventive genius that would lead to said excitement would happen in the Old World confines of Switzerland.

Tim Berners-Lee

In many respects, he looks like an Englishman from central casting — quiet, courteous, reserved. Ask him about his family life and you hit a polite but exceedingly blank wall. Ask him about the Web, however, and he is suddenly transformed into an Italian — words tumble out nineteen to the dozen and he gesticulates like mad. There’s a deep, deep passion here. And why not? It is, after all, his baby.

— John Naughton, writing about Tim Berners-Lee

The seeds of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire — better known in the Anglosphere as simply CERN — were planted amidst the devastation of post-World War II Europe by the great French quantum physicist Louis de Broglie. Possessing an almost religious faith in pure science as a force for good in the world, he proposed a new, pan-European foundation dedicated to exploring the subatomic realm. “At a time when the talk is of uniting the peoples of Europe,” he said, “[my] attention has turned to the question of developing this new international unit, a laboratory or institution where it would be possible to carry out scientific work above and beyond the framework of the various nations taking part. What each European nation is unable to do alone, a united Europe can do, and, I have no doubt, would do brilliantly.” After years of dedicated lobbying on de Broglie’s part, CERN officially came to be in 1954, with its base of operations in Geneva, Switzerland, one of the places where Europeans have traditionally come together for all manner of purposes.

The general technological trend at CERN over the following decades was the polar opposite of what was happening in computing: as scientists attempted to peer deeper and deeper into the subatomic realm, the machines they required kept getting bigger and bigger. Between 1983 and 1989, CERN built the Large Electron-Positron Collider in Geneva. With a circumference of almost seventeen miles, it was the largest single machine ever built in the history of the world. Managing projects of such magnitude, some of them employing hundreds of scientists and thousands of support staff, required a substantial computing infrastructure, along with many programmers and systems architects to run it. Among this group was a quiet Briton named Tim Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee’s credentials were perfect for his role. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Oxford in 1976, only to find that pure science didn’t satisfy his urge to create practical things that real people could make use of. As it happened, both of his parents were computer scientists of considerable note; they had both worked on the University of Manchester’s Mark I computer, the world’s very first stored-program von Neumann machine. So, it was natural for their son to follow in their footsteps, to make a career for himself in the burgeoning new field of microcomputing. Said career took him to CERN for a six-month contract in 1980, then back to Geneva on a more permanent basis in 1984. Because of his background in physics, Berners-Lee could understand the needs of the scientists he served better than many of his colleagues; his talent for devising workable solutions to their problems turned him into something of a star at CERN. Among other projects, he labored long and hard to devise a way of making the thousands upon thousands of pages of documentation that were generated at CERN each year accessible, manageable, and navigable.

But, for all that Berners-Lee was being paid to create an internal documentation system for CERN, it’s clear that he began thinking along bigger lines fairly quickly. The same problems of navigation and discoverability that dogged his colleagues at CERN were massively present on the Internet as a whole. Information was hidden there in out-of-the-way repositories that could only be accessed using command-line-driven software with obscure command sets — if, that is, you knew that it existed at all.

His idea of a better way came courtesy of hypertext theory: a non-linear approach to reading texts and navigating an information space, built around associative links embedded within and between texts. First proposed by Vannevar Bush, the World War II-era MIT giant whom we briefly met in an earlier article in this series, hypertext theory had later proved a superb fit with a mouse-driven graphical computer interface which had been pioneered at Xerox PARC during the 1970s under the astute management of our old friend Robert Taylor. The PARC approach to user interfaces reached the consumer market in a prominent way for the first time in 1984 as the defining feature of the Apple Macintosh. And the Mac in turn went on to become the early hotbed of hypertext experimentation on consumer-grade personal computers, thanks to Apple’s own HyperCard authoring system and the HyperCard-driven laser discs and CD-ROMs that soon emerged from companies like Voyager.

The user interfaces found in HyperCard applications were surprisingly similar to those found in the web browsers of today, but they were limited to the curated, static content found on a single floppy disk or CD-ROM. “They’ve already done the difficult bit!” Berners-Lee remembers thinking. Now someone just needed to put hypertext on the Internet, to allow files on one computer to link to files on another, with anyone and everyone able to create such links. He saw how “a single hypertext link could lead to an enormous, unbounded world.” Yet no one else seemed to see this. So, he decided at last to do it himself. In a fit of self-deprecating mock-grandiosity, not at all dissimilar to J.C.R. Licklider’s call for an “Intergalactic Computer Network,” he named his proposed system the “World Wide Web.” He had no idea how perfect the name would prove.

He sat down to create his World Wide Web in October of 1990, using a NeXT workstation computer, the flagship product of the company Steve Jobs had formed after getting booted out of Apple several years earlier. It was an expensive machine — far too expensive for the ordinary consumer market — but supremely elegant, combining the power of the hacker-favorite operating system Unix with the graphical user interface of the Macintosh.

The NeXT computer on which Tim Berners-Lee created the foundations of the World Wide Web. It then went on to become the world’s first web server.

Progress was swift. In less than three months, Berners-Lee coded the world’s first web server and browser, which also entailed developing the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) they used to communicate with one another and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) for embedding associative links into documents. These were the foundational technologies of the Web, which still remain essential to the networked digital world we know today.

The first page to go up on the nascent World Wide Web, which belied its name at this point by being available only inside CERN, was a list of phone numbers of the people who worked there. Clicking through its hypertext links being much easier than entering commands into the database application CERN had previously used for the purpose, it served to get Berners-Lee’s browser installed on dozens of NeXT computers. But the really big step came in August of 1991, when, having debugged and refined his system as thoroughly as he was able by using his CERN colleagues as guinea pigs, he posted his web browser, his web server, and documentation on how to use HTML to create web documents on Usenet. The response was not immediately overwhelming, but it was gratifying in a modest way. Berners-Lee:

People who saw the Web and realised the sense of unbound opportunity began installing the server and posting information. Then they added links to related sites that they found were complimentary or simply interesting. The Web began to be picked up by people around the world. The messages from system managers began to stream in: “Hey, I thought you’d be interested. I just put up a Web server.”

Tim Berners-Lee’s original web browser, which he named Nexus in honor of its host platform. The NeXT computer actually had quite impressive graphics capabilities, but you’d never know it by looking at Nexus.

In December of 1991, Berners-Lee begged for and was reluctantly granted a chance to demonstrate the World Wide Web at that year’s official Hypertext conference in San Antonio, Texas. He arrived with high hopes, only to be accorded a cool reception. The hypertext movement came complete with more than its fair share of stodgy theorists with rigid ideas about how hypertext ought to work — ideas which tended to have more to do with the closed, curated experiences of HyperCard than the anarchic open Internet. Normally modest almost to a fault, the Berners-Lee of today does allow himself to savor the fact that “at the same conference two years later, every project on display would have something to do with the Web.”

But the biggest factor holding the Web back at this point wasn’t the resistance of the academics; it was rather its being bound so tightly to the NeXT machines, which had a total user base of no more than a few tens of thousands, almost all of them at universities and research institutions like CERN. Although some browsers had been created for other, more popular computers, they didn’t sport the effortless point-and-click interface of Berners-Lee’s original; instead they presented their links like footnotes, whose numbers the user had to type in to visit them. Thus Berners-Lee and the fellow travelers who were starting to coalesce around him made it their priority in 1992 to encourage the development of more point-and-click web browsers. One for the X Window System, the graphical-interface layer which had been developed for the previously text-only Unix, appeared in April. Even more importantly, a Macintosh browser arrived just a month later; this marked the first time that the World Wide Web could be explored in the way Berners-Lee had envisioned on a computer that the proverbial ordinary person might own and use.

Amidst the organization directories and technical papers which made up most of the early Web — many of the latter inevitably dealing with the vagaries of HTTP and HTML themselves — Berners-Lee remembers one site that stood out for being something else entirely, for being a harbinger of the more expansive, humanist vision he had had for his World Wide Web almost from the start. It was a site about Rome during the Renaissance, built up from a traveling museum exhibition which had recently visited the American Library of Congress. Berners-Lee:

On my first visit, I wandered to a music room. There was an explanation of the events that caused the composer Carpentras to present a decorated manuscript of his Lamentations of Jeremiah to Pope Clement VII. I clicked, and was glad I had a 21-inch colour screen: suddenly it was filled with a beautifully illustrated score, which I could gaze at more easily and in more detail than I could have done had I gone to the original exhibit at the Library of Congress.

If we could visit this site today, however, we would doubtless be struck by how weirdly textual it was for being a celebration of the Renaissance, one of the most excitingly visual ages in all of history. The reality is that it could hardly have been otherwise; the pages displayed by Berners-Lee’s NeXT browser and all of the others could not mix text with images at all. The best they could do was to present links to images, which, when clicked, would lead to a picture being downloaded and displayed in a separate window, as Berners-Lee describes above.

But already another man on the other side of the ocean was working on changing that — working, one might say, on the last pieces necessary to make a World Wide Web that we can immediately recognize today.

Marc Andreessen barefoot on the cover of Time magazine, creating the archetype of the dot-com entrepreneur/visionary/rock star.

Tim Berners-Lee was the last of the old guard of Internet pioneers. Steeped in an ethic of non-profit research for the abstract good of the human race, he never attempted to commercialize his work. Indeed, he has seemed in the decades since his masterstroke almost to willfully shirk the money and fame that some might say are rightfully his for putting the finishing touch on the greatest revolution in communications since the printing press, one which has bound the world together in a way that Samuel Morse and Alexander Graham Bell could never have dreamed of.

Marc Andreessen, by contrast, was the first of a new breed of business entrepreneurs who have dominated our discussions of the Internet from the mid-1990s until the present day. Yes, one can trace the cult of the tech-sector disruptor, “making the world a better place” and “moving fast and breaking things,” back to the dapper young Steve Jobs who introduced the Apple Macintosh to the world in January of 1984. But it was Andreessen and the flood of similar young men that followed him during the 1990s who well and truly embedded the archetype in our culture.

Before any of that, though, he was just a kid who decided to make a web browser of his own.

Andreessen first discovered the Web not long after Berners-Lee first made his tools and protocols publicly available. At the time, he was a twenty-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who held a job on the side at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, a research institute with close ties to the university. The name sounded very impressive, but he found the job itself to be dull as ditch water. His dissatisfaction came down to the same old split between the “giant brain” model of computing of folks like Marvin Minsky and the more humanist vision espoused in earlier years by people like J.C.R. Licklider. The NCSA was in pursuit of the former, but Andreessen was a firm adherent of the latter.

Bored out of his mind writing menial code for esoteric projects he couldn’t care less about, Andreessen spent a lot of time looking for more interesting things to do on the Internet. And so he stumbled across the fledgling World Wide Web. It didn’t look like much — just a screen full of text — but he immediately grasped its potential.

In fact, he judged, the Web’s not looking like much was a big part of its problem. Casting about for a way to snazz it up, he had the stroke of inspiration that would make him a multi-millionaire within three years. He decided to add a new tag to Berners-Lee’s HTML specification: “<img>,” for “image.” By using it, one would be able to show pictures inline with text. It could make the Web an entirely different sort of place, a wonderland of colorful visuals to go along with its textual content.

As conceptual leaps go, this one really wasn’t that audacious. The biggest buzzword in consumer computing in recent years — bigger than hypertext — had been “multimedia,” a catch-all term describing exactly this sort of digital mixing of content types, something which was now becoming possible thanks to the ever-improving audiovisual capabilities of personal computers since those primitive early days of the trinity of 1977. Hypertext and multimedia had actually been sharing many of the same digs for quite some time. The HyperCard authoring system, for example, boasted capabilities much like those which Andreessen now wished to add to HTML, and the Voyager CD-ROMs already existed as compelling case studies in the potential of interactive multimedia hypertext in a non-networked context.

Still, someone had to be the first to put two and two together, and that someone was Marc Andreessen. An only moderately accomplished programmer himself, he convinced a much better one, another NCSA employee named Eric Bina, to help him create his new browser. The pair fell into roles vaguely reminiscent of those of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak during the early days of Apple Computer: Andreessen set the agenda and came up with the big ideas — many of them derived from tireless trawling of the Usenet newsgroups to find out what people didn’t like about the current browsers — and Bina turned his ideas into reality. Andreessen’s relentless focus on the end-user experience led to other important innovations beyond inline images, such as the “forward,” “back,” and “refresh” buttons that remain so ubiquitous in the browsers of today. The higher-ups at NCSA eventually agreed to allow Andreessen to brand his browser as a quasi-official product of their institute; on an Internet still dominated by academics, such an imprimatur was sure to be a useful aid. In January of 1993, the browser known as Mosaic — the name seemed an apt metaphor for the colorful multimedia pages it could display — went up on NCSA’s own servers. After that, “it spread like a virus,” in the words of Andreessen himself.

The slick new browser and its almost aggressively ambitious young inventor soon came to the attention of Tim Berners-Lee. He calls Andreessen “a total contrast to any of the other [browser] developers. Marc was not so much interested in just making the program work as in having his browser used by as many people as possible.” But, lest he sound uncharitable toward his populist counterpart, he hastens to add that “that was, of course, what the Web needed.” Berners-Lee made the Web; the garrulous Andreessen brought it to the masses in a way the self-effacing Briton could arguably never have managed on his own.

About six months after Mosaic hit the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee came to visit its inventor. Their meeting brought with it the first palpable signs of the tension that would surround the World Wide Web and the Internet as a whole almost from that point forward. It was the tension between non-profit idealism and the urge to commercialize, to brand, and finally to control. Even before the meeting, Berners-Lee had begun to feel disturbed by the press coverage Mosaic was receiving, helped along by the public-relations arm of NCSA itself: “The focus was on Mosaic, as if it were the Web. There was little mention of other browsers, or even the rest of the world’s effort to create servers. The media, which didn’t take the time to investigate deeper, started to portray Mosaic as if it were equivalent to the Web.” Now, at the meeting, he was taken aback by an atmosphere that smacked more of a business negotiation than a friendly intellectual exchange, even as he wasn’t sure what exactly was being negotiated. “Marc gave the impression that he thought of this meeting as a poker game,” Berners-Lee remembers.

Andreessen’s recollections of the meeting are less nuanced. Berners-Lee, he claims, “bawled me out for adding images to the thing.” Andreessen:

Academics in computer science are so often out to solve these obscure research problems. The universities may force it upon them, but they aren’t always motivated to just do something that people want to use. And that’s definitely the sense that we always had of CERN. And I don’t want to mis-characterize them, but whenever we dealt with them, they were much more interested in the Web from a research point of view rather than a practical point of view. And so it was no big deal to them to do a NeXT browser, even though nobody would ever use it. The concept of adding an image just for the sake of adding an image didn’t make sense [to them], whereas to us, it made sense because, let’s face it, they made pages look cool.

The first version of Mosaic ran only on X-Windows, but, as the above would indicate, Andreessen had never intended for that to be the case for long. He recruited more programmers to write ports for the Macintosh and, most importantly of all, for Microsoft Windows, whose market share of consumer computing in the United States was crossing the threshold of 90 percent. When the Windows version of Mosaic went online in September of 1993, it motivated hundreds of thousands of computer owners to engage with the Internet for the first time; the Internet to them effectively was Mosaic, just as Berners-Lee had feared would come to pass.

The Mosaic browser. It may not look like much today, but its ability to display inline images was a game-changer.

At this time, Microsoft Windows didn’t even include a TCP/IP stack, the software layer that could make a machine into a full-fledged denizen of the Internet, with its own IP address and all the trimmings. In the brief span of time before Microsoft remedied that situation, a doughty Australian entrepreneur named Peter Tattam provided an add-on TCP/IP stack, which he distributed as shareware. Meanwhile other entrepreneurs scrambled to set up Internet service providers to provide the unwashed masses with an on-ramp to the Web — no university enrollment required! —  and the shelves of computer stores filled up with all-in-one Internet kits that were designed to make the whole process as painless as possible.

The unabashed elitists who had been on the Internet for years scorned the newcomers, but there was nothing they could do to stop the invasion, which stormed their ivory towers with overwhelming force. Between December of 1993 and December of 1994, the total amount of Web traffic jumped by a factor of eight. By the latter date, there were more than 10,000 separate sites on the Web, thanks to people all over the world who had rolled up their sleeves and learned HTML so that they could get their own idiosyncratic messages out to anyone who cared to read them. If some (most?) of the sites they created were thoroughly frivolous, well, that was part of the charm of the thing. The World Wide Web was the greatest leveler in the history of media; it enabled anyone to become an author and a publisher rolled into one, no matter how rich or poor, talented or talent-less. The traditional gatekeepers of mass media have been trying to figure out how to respond ever since.

Marc Andreessen himself abandoned the browser that did so much to make all this happen before it celebrated its first birthday. He graduated from university in December of 1993, and, annoyed by the growing tendency of his bosses at NCSA to take credit for his creation, he decamped for — where else? — Silicon Valley. There he bumped into Jim Clark, a huge name in the Valley, who had founded Silicon Graphics twelve years earlier and turned it into the biggest name in digital special effects for the film industry. Feeling hamstrung by Silicon Graphics’s increasing bureaucracy as it settled into corporate middle age, Clark had recently left the company, leading to much speculation about what he would do next. The answer came on April 4, 1994, when he and Marc Andreessen founded Mosaic Communications in order to build a browser even better than the one the latter had built at NCSA. The dot-com boom had begun.

(Sources: the books A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton, From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology edited by Jeremy M. Norman, A History of Modern Computing (2nd ed.) by Paul E. Ceruzzi, Communication Networks: A Concise Introduction by Jean Walrand and Shyam Parekh, Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee, How the Web was Born by James Gillies and Robert Calliau, and Architects of the Web by Robert H. Reid. InfoWorld of August 24 1987, September 7 1987, April 25 1988, November 28 1988, January 9 1989, October 23 1989, and February 4 1991; Computer Gaming World of May 1993.)


1 When he first stated his law in 1965, Moore actually proposed a doubling every single year, but revised his calculations in 1975.


A Web Around the World, Part 9: A Network of Networks

UCLA will become the first station in a nationwide computer network which, for the first time, will link together computers of different makes and using different machine languages into one time-sharing system. Creation of the network represents a major step in computer technology and may serve as the forerunner of large computer networks of the future. The ambitious project is supported by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which has pioneered many advances in computer research, technology, and applications during the past decade.

The system will, in effect, pool the computer power, programs, and specialized know-how of about fifteen computer-research centers, stretching from UCLA to MIT. Other California network stations (or nodes) will be located at the Rand Corporation and System Development Corporation, both of Santa Monica; the Santa Barbara and Berkeley campuses of the University of California; Stanford University and the Stanford Research Institute.

The first stage of the network will go into operation this fall as a sub-net joining UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. The entire network is expected to be operational in late 1970.

Engineering professor Leonard Kleinrock, who heads the UCLA project, describes how the network might handle a sample problem:

Programmers at Computer A have a blurred photo which they want to bring into focus. Their program transmits the photo to Computer B, which specializes in computer graphics, and instructs Computer B’s program to remove the blur and enhance the contrast. If B requires specialized computational assistance, it may call on Computer C for help. The processed work is shuttled back and forth until B is satisfied with the photo, and then sends it back to Computer A. The messages, ranging across the country, can flash between computers in a matter of seconds, Dr. Kleinrock says.

Each computer in the network will be equipped with its own interface message processor (IMP), which will double as a sort of translator among the Babel of computers languages and as a message handler and router.

Computer networks are not an entirely new concept, notes Dr. Kleinrock. The SAGE radar defense system of the fifties was one of the first, followed by the airlines’ SABRE reservation system. However, [both] are highly specialized and single-purpose systems, in contrast to the planned ARPA system which will link a wide assortment of different computers for a wide range of unclassified research functions.

“As of now, computer networks are still in their infancy,” says Dr. Kleinrock. “But as they grow up and become more sophisticated, we will probably see the spread of ‘computer utilities,’ which, like present electric and telephone utilities, will serve individual homes and offices across the country.”

— UCLA press release dated July 3, 1969 (which may include the first published use of the term “router”)

In July of 1968, Larry Roberts sent out a request for bids to build the ARPANET’s interface message processors — the world’s very first computer routers. More than a dozen proposals were received in response, some of them from industry heavy hitters like DEC and Raytheon. But when Roberts and Bob Taylor announced their final decision at the end of the year, everyone was surprised to learn that they had given the contract to the comparatively tiny firm of Bolt Beranek and Newman.

BBN, as the company was more typically called, came up in our previous article as well; J.C.R. Licklider was working there at the time he wrote his landmark paper on “human-computer symbiosis.” Formed in 1948 as an acoustics laboratory, BBN moved into computers in a big way during the 1950s, developing in the process a symbiotic relationship of its own with MIT. Faculty and students circulated freely between the university and BBN, which became a hacker refuge, tolerant of all manner of eccentricity and uninterested in such niceties as dress codes and stipulated working hours. A fair percentage of BBN’s staff came to consist of MIT dropouts, young men who had become too transfixed by their computer hacking to keep up with the rest of their coursework.

BBN’s forte was one-off, experimental contracts, not the sort of thing that led directly to salable commercial products but that might eventually do so ten or twenty years in the future. In this sense, the ARPANET was right up their alley. They won the bid by submitting a more thoughtful, detailed proposal than anyone else, even going so far as to rewrite some of ARPA’s own specifications to make the IMPs operate more efficiently.

Like all of the other bidders, BBN didn’t propose to build the IMPs from scratch, but rather to adapt an existing computer for the purpose. Their choice was the Honeywell 516, one of a new generation of robust integrated-circuit-based “minicomputers,” which distinguished themselves by being no larger than the typical refrigerator and being able to run on ordinary household current. Since the ARPANET would presumably need a lot of IMPs if it proved successful, the relatively cheap and commonplace Honeywell model seemed a wise choice.

The Honeywell 516, the computer model which was transformed into the world’s first router.

Still, the plan was to start as small as possible. The first version of the ARPANET to go online would include just four IMPs, linking four research clusters together. Surprisingly, MIT was not to be one of them; it was left out because the other inaugural sites were out West and ARPA didn’t want to pay AT&T for a transcontinental line right off the bat. Instead the Universities of California at Los Angeles and Santa Barbara each got the honor of being among the first to join the ARPANET, as did the University of Utah and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), an adjunct to Stanford University. ARPA wanted BBN to ship the first turnkey IMP to UCLA by September of 1969, and for all four of the inaugural nodes to be up and running by the end of the year. Meeting those deadlines wouldn’t be easy.

The project leader at BBN was Frank Heart, a man known for his wide streak of technological paranoia — he had a knack for zeroing in on all of the things that could go wrong with any given plan — and for being “the only person I knew who spoke in italics,” as his erstwhile BBN colleague Severo Ornstein puts it. (“Not he was inflexible or unpleasant — just definite.”) Ornstein himself, having moved up in the world of computing since his days as a hapless entry-level “Crosstelling” specialist on the SAGE project, worked under Heart as the principal hardware architect, while an intense young hacker named Will Crowther, who loved caving and rock climbing almost as much as computers, supervised the coding. At the start, they all considered the Honeywell 516 a well-proven machine, given that it had been on the market for a few years already. They soon learned to their chagrin, however, that no one had ever pushed it as hard as they were now doing; obscure flaws in the hardware nearly derailed the project on more than one occasion. But they got it done in the end. The first IMP was shipped across the country to UCLA right on schedule.

The team from Bolt Beranek and Newman who created the world’s first routers. Severo Ornstein stands at the extreme right, Will Crowther just next to him. Frank Heart is near the center, the only man wearing a necktie.

On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon, marking one culmination of that which had begun with the launch of the Soviet Union’s first Sputnik satellite twelve years earlier. Five and a half weeks after the Moon landing, another, much quieter result of Sputnik became a reality. The first public demonstration of a functioning network router was oddly similar to some of the first demonstrations of Samuel Morse’s telegraph, in that it was an exercise in sending a message around a loop that led it right back to the place where it had first come from. A Scientific Data Systems Sigma 7 computer at UCLA sent a data packet to the IMP that had just been delivered, which was sitting right beside it. Then the IMP duly read the packet’s intended destination and sent it back where it had come from, to appear as text on a monitor screen.

There was literally nowhere else to send it, for only one IMP had been built to date and only this one computer was yet possessed of the ability to talk to it. The work of preparing the latter had been done by a team of UCLA graduate students working under Leonard Kleinrock, the man whose 1964 book had popularized the idea of packet switching. “It didn’t look like anything,” remembers Steve Crocker, a member of Kleinrock’s team. But looks can be deceiving; unlike the crowd of clueless politicians who had once watched Morse send a telegraph message in a ten-mile loop around the halls of the United States Congress, everyone here understood the implications of what they were witnessing. The IMPs worked.

Bob Taylor, the man who had pushed and pushed until he found a way to make the ARPANET happen, chose to make this moment of triumph his ironic exit cue. A staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, he had been suffering pangs of conscience over his role as a cog in the military-industrial complex for a long time, even as he continued to believe in the ARPANET’s future value for the civilian world. After Richard Nixon was elected president in November of 1968, he had decided that he would stay on just long enough to get the IMPs finished, by which point the ARPANET as a whole would hopefully be past the stage where cancellation was a realistic possibility. He stuck to that decision; he resigned just days after the first test of an IMP. His replacement was Larry Roberts — another irony, given that Taylor had been forced practically to blackmail Roberts into joining ARPA in the first place. Taylor himself would land at Xerox’s new Palo Alto Research Center, where over the course of the new decade he would help to invent much else that has become an everyday part of our digital lives.

About a month after the test of the first IMP, BBN shipped a second one, this time to the Stanford Research Institute. It was connected to its twin at UCLA by an AT&T long-distance line. Another, local cable was run from it to SRI’s Scientific Data Systems 940 computer, which was normally completely incompatible with UCLA’s Sigma machine despite coming from the same manufacturer. In this case, however, programmers at the two institutions had hacked together a method of echoing text back and forth between their computers — assuming it worked, that is; they had had no way of actually finding out.

On October 29, 1969, a UCLA student named Charley Kline, sitting behind his Sigma 7 terminal, called up SRI on an ordinary telephone to initiate the first real test of the ARPANET. Computer rooms in those days were noisy places, what with all of the ventilation the big beasts required, so the two human interlocutors had to fairly shout into their respective telephones. “I’m going to type an L,” Kline yelled, and did so. “Did you get the L?” His opposite number acknowledged that he had. Kline typed an O. “Did you get the O?” Yes. He typed a G.

“The computer just crashed,” said the man at SRI.

“History now records how clever we were to send such a prophetic first message, namely ‘LO,'” says Leonard Kleinrock today with a laugh. They had been trying to manage “LOGIN,” which itself wouldn’t have been a challenger to Samuel Morse’s “What hath God wrought?” in the eloquence sweepstakes — but then, these were different times.

At any rate, the bug which had caused the crash was fixed before the day was out, and regular communications began. UC Santa Barbara came online in November, followed by the University of Utah in December. Satisfied with this proof of concept, ARPA agreed to embark on the next stage of the project, extending the network to the East Coast. In March of 1970, the ARPANET reached BBN itself. Needless to say, this achievement — computer networking’s equivalent to telephony’s spanning of the continent back in 1915 — went entirely unnoticed by an oblivious public. BBN was followed before the year was out by MIT, Rand, System Development Corporation, and Harvard University.

It would make for a more exciting tale to say that the ARPANET revolutionized computing immediately, but such was not the case. In its first couple of years, the network was neither a raging success nor an abject failure. On the one hand, its technical underpinnings advanced at a healthy clip; BBN steadily refined their IMPs, moving them away from modified general-purpose computers and toward the specialized routers we know today. Likewise, the network they served continued to grow; by the end of 1971, the ARPANET had fifteen nodes. But despite it all, it remained frustratingly underused; a BBN survey conducted about two years in revealed that the ARPANET was running at just 2 percent of its theoretical capacity.

The problem was one of computer communication at a higher level than that of the IMPs. Claude Shannon had told the world that information was information in a networking context, and the minds behind the ARPANET had taken his tautology to heart. They had designed a system for shuttling arbitrary blocks of data about, without concerning themselves overmuch about the actual purpose of said data. But the ability to move raw data from computer to computer availed one little if one didn’t know how to create meaning out of all those bits. “It was like picking up the phone and calling France,” Frank Heart of BBN would later say. “Even if you get the connection to work, if you don’t speak French you’ve got a little problem.”

What was needed were higher-level protocols that could run on top of the ARPANET’s packet switching — a set of agreed-upon “languages” for all of these disparate computers to use when talking with one another in order to accomplish something actually useful. Seeing that no one else was doing so, BBN and MIT finally deigned to provide them. First came Telnet, a protocol to let one log into a remote computer and interact with it at a textual command line just as if one was sitting right next to it at a local terminal. And then came the File Transfer Protocol, or FTP, which allowed one to move files back and forth between two computers, optionally performing useful transformations on them in the process, such as going from EBCDIC to ASCII text encoding or vice versa. It is a testament to how well the hackers behind these protocols did their jobs that both have remained with us to this day. Still, the application that really made the ARPANET come alive — the one that turned it almost overnight from a technological experiment to an indispensable tool for working and even socializing — was the next one to come along.

Jack Ruina was now long gone as the head of all of ARPA; that role was now filled by a respected physicist named Steve Lukasik. Lukasik would later remember how Larry Roberts came into his office one day in April of 1972 to try to convince him to use the ARPANET personally. “What am I going to do on the ARPANET?” the non-technical Lukasik asked skeptically.

“Well,” mused Roberts, “you could do email.”

Email wasn’t really a new idea at the time. By the mid-1960s, the largest computer at MIT had hundreds of users, who logged in as many as 30 at a time via local terminals. An undergraduate named Tom Van Vleck noticed that some users had gotten in a habit of passing messages to one another by writing them up in text files with names such as “TO TOM,” then dropping them into a shared directory. In 1965, he created what was probably the world’s first true email system in order to provide them with a more elegant solution. Just like all of the email systems that would follow it, it gave each user a virtual mailbox to which any other user could direct a virtual letter, then see it delivered instantly. Replying, forwarding, address books, carbon copies — all of the niceties we’ve come to expect — followed in fairly short order, at MIT and in many other institutions. Early in 1972, a BBN programmer named Ray Tomlinson took what struck him as the logical next step, by creating a system for sending email between otherwise separate computers — or “hosts,” as they were known in the emerging parlance of the ARPANET.

Thanks to FTP, Tomlinson already had a way of doing the grunt work of moving the individual letters from computer to computer. His biggest dilemma was a question of addressing. It was reasonable for the administrators of any single host to demand that every user have a unique login ID, which could also function as her email address. But it would be impractical to insist on unique IDs across the entire ARPANET. And even if it was possible, how was the computer on which an electronic missive had been composed to know which other computer was home to the intended recipient? Trying to maintain a shared central database of every login for every computer on the ARPANET didn’t strike Tomlinson as much of a solution.

His alternative approach, which he would later describe as no more than “obvious,” would go on to become an icon of the digital age. Each email address would consist of a local user name followed by an “at” sign (@) and the name of the host on which it lived. Just as a paper letter moves from an address in a town, then to a larger postal hub, then onward to a hub in another region, and finally to another individual street address, email would use its suffix to find the correct host on the ARPANET. Once it arrived there, said host could drill down further and route it to the correct user. “Now, there’s a nice hack,” said one of Tomlinson’s colleagues; that was about as effusive as a compliment could get in hacker circles.

Stephen Lukasik, ARPA head and original email-obsessed road warrior.

Steve Lukasik reluctantly allowed Larry Roberts to install an ARPANET terminal in his office for the purpose of reading and writing email. Within days, the skeptic became an evangelist. He couldn’t believe how useful email actually was. He sent out a directive to anyone who was anyone at ARPA, whether their work involved computers or not: all were ordered to accept a terminal in their office. “The way to communicate with me is through electronic mail,” he announced categorically. He soon acquired a “portable” terminal which was the size of a suitcase and weighed 30 pounds, but which came equipped with a modem that would allow him to connect to the ARPANET from any location from which he could finagle access to an ordinary telephone. He became the prototype for millions of professional road warriors to come, dialing into the office constantly from conference rooms, from hotel rooms, from airport lounges. He became perhaps the first person in the world who wasn’t already steeped in computing to make the services the ARPANET could provide an essential part of his day-to-day life.

But he was by no means the last. “Email was the biggest surprise about the ARPANET,” says Leonard Kleinrock. “It was an ad-hoc add-on by BBN, and it just blossomed. And that sucked a lot of people in.” Within a year of Lukasik’s great awakening, three quarters of all the traffic on the ARPANET consisted of emails flying to and fro, and the total volume of traffic on the network had grown by a factor of five and a half.

With a supportive ARPA administrator behind them and applications like email beginning to prove their network’s real-world usefulness, it struck the people who had designed and built the ARPANET that it was time for a proper coming-out party. They settled on the International Conference on Computers and Communications, which was to be held at the Washington, D.C., Hilton hotel in October of 1972. Almost every institution connected to the ARPANET sent representatives toting terminals and demonstration software, while AT&T ran a special high-capacity line into the hotel’s ballroom to get them all online.

More than a thousand people traipsed through the exhibition over the course of two and half days, taking in several dozen demonstrations of what the ARPANET could do now and might conceivably be able to do in the future. It was the first that some of them had ever heard of the network, or even of the idea of computer networking in general.

One of the demonstrations bore an ironic resemblance to the SAGE system that had first proved that wide-area computer networking could work at all. Leonard Kleinrock:

One of the things that was demonstrated there was a distributed air-traffic-control system. The idea was there would be some air traffic on the system. And as a plane moved out of its region, it would be picked up by another computer in the next region, data would be exchanged, and collectively the computers would be managing airspace over a large region. This package also had the ability to freeze the simulation at any given point, take the program on Machine A, squeeze it over to Machine B, and then continue the simulation with the user being none the wiser. So there were really some sophisticated things going on there.

Severo Ornstein, who was also present, must have been having flashbacks to his early experiences with Crosstelling…

A Stanford researcher named Vint Cerf remembers three principal reactions among the attendees.

The first came from the die-hard circuit-switching people from the telephone industry, who didn’t believe packet switching could possibly work. And they were stunned because it did work. It was almost like the rail industry disbelieving that airplanes could really fly until they saw one in flight. The second group were the people who didn’t know anything about computer communications at all to speak of, and who were sort of overwhelmed by the whole thing. But then there was the third group: the people who were just as excited as little kids because of all these neat things that were going on.

Amidst the demonstrations of email, file transfers, remote logins, even remote software development, the hit of the show was something far more frivolous. Stanford’s AI Lab had brought a program called Parry, a “simulation” — we would call it a chatbot today — of a patient undergoing psychological therapy. They had wired Parry up to talk with another program called Eliza, a computerized psychotherapist created by one Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT back in 1966.

Good evening. Tell me your problems. Please terminate input with a period or a question mark.

People get on my nerves sometimes.

I am not sure I understand you.

You should pay more attention.

Suppose you should pay more attention.

You're entitled to your own opinion.

What makes you think I am entitled to my own opinion?

It bothers me just to be around people in general.

Please go on.

I went to the track at Bay Meadows a while back.

Why do you say that just now?

There's a lot of crooked gambling going on there.

Please go on.

I gamble on horses.

What does that suggest to you?

Do you know anything about bookies?

What makes you think I know anything about bookies?

A bookie didn't pay me off once.

What does that suggest to you?

I beat up the bookie who did not pay off, and I thought he might use his friends in the underworld to get even with me.

What are you really talking about?

Have you ever really thought about the mafia?

Suppose you ever really thought about the mafia.

Let's talk about something else.

And so it went. As Joseph Weizenbaum himself was at pains to point out later in his career, Eliza and Parry were nothing more than clever parlor tricks, a set of rote semantic transformations and randomized catchphrases meant to convey a tissue-thin simulacrum of real understanding, convincing only to the naïve and those actively determined to believe. Their presence here as the shabby best that the strong-AI contingent could offer, surrounded by so many genuinely visionary demonstrations of computing’s humanistic, networked future, ought to have demonstrated to the thoughtful observer how one vision of computing was delivering on its promises while the other manifestly was not. But no matter: the crowd ate it up. It seems there was no shortage of gullible true believers in the Hilton ballroom during those exciting two and a half days.

The International Conference on Computers and Communications provided the ARPANET with some of its first press coverage beyond academic journals. Within computing circles, however, the ARPANET’s existence hadn’t gone unnoticed even by those who, thanks to accidents of proximity, had no opportunity to participate in it. During the early 1970s, would-be ARPANET equivalents popped up in a number of places outside the continental United States. There was ALOHANET, which used radio waves to join the various campuses of the University of Hawaii, which were located on different islands, into one computing neighborhood. There was the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) network in Britain, which served that country’s research community in much the same way that ARPANET served computer scientists in the United States. (The NPL network’s design actually dated back to the mid-1960s, and some of its proposed architecture had influenced the ARPANET, making it arguably more a case of parallel evolution than of learning from example.) Most recently, there was a network known as CYCLADES in development in France.

All of which is to say that computer networking in the big picture was looking more and more like the early days of telephony: a collection of discrete networks that served their own denizens well but had no way of communicating with one another. This wouldn’t do at all; ever since the time when J.C.R. Licklider had been pushing his Intergalactic Computer Network, proponents of wide-area computer networking had had a decidedly internationalist, even utopian streak. As far as they were concerned, the world’s computers — all of the world’s computers, wherever they happened to be physically located — simply had to find a way to talk to one another.

The problem wasn’t one of connectivity in its purest sense. As we saw in earlier articles, telephony had already found ways of going where wires could not easily be strung decades before. And by now, many of telephony’s terrestrial radio and microwave beams had been augmented or replaced by communications satellites — another legacy of Sputnik — that served to bind the planet’s human voices that much closer together. There was no intrinsic reason that computers couldn’t talk to one another over the same links. The real problem was rather that the routers on each of the extant networks used their own protocols for talking among themselves and to the computers they served. The routers of the ARPANET, for example, used something called the Network Control Program, or NCP, which had been codified by a team from Stanford led by Steve Crocker, based upon the early work of BBN hackers like Will Crowther. Other networks used completely different protocols. How were they to make sense of one another? Larry Roberts came to see this as computer networking’s next big challenge.

He happened to have working just under him at ARPA a fellow named Bob Kahn, a bright spark who had already achieved much in computing in his 35 years. Roberts now assigned Kahn the task of trying to make sense of the international technological Tower of Babel that was computer networking writ large. Kahn in turn enlisted Stanford’s Vint Cerf as a collaborator.

Bob Kahn

Vint Cerf

The two theorized and argued with one another and with their academic colleagues for about a year, then published their conclusions in the May 1974 issue of IEEE Transactions on Communications, in an article entitled “A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication.” It introduced to the world a new word: the “Internet,” shorthand for Khan and Cerf’s envisioned network of networks. The linchpin of their scheme was a sort of meta-network of linked “gateways,” special routers that handled all traffic going in and out of the individual networks; if the routers on the ARPANET were that network’s interstate highway system, its gateway would become its international airport. A host wishing to send a packet to a computer outside its own network would pass it to its local gateway using its network’s standard protocols, but would include within the packet information about the particular “foreign” computer it was trying to reach. The gateway would then rejigger the packet into a universal standard format and send it over the meta-network to the gateway of the network to which the foreign computer belonged. Then this gateway would rejigger the packet yet again, into a format suitable for passing over the network behind it to reach its ultimate destination.

Kahn and Cerf detailed a brand-new protocol to allow the gateways on the meta-network to talk among themselves. They called it the Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP. It gave each computer on the networks served by the gateways the equivalent of a telephone number. These “TCP addresses” — which we now call “IP addresses,” for reasons we’ll get to shortly — originally consisted of three fields, each containing a number between 0 and 255. The first field stipulated the network to which the host belonged; think of it as a telephone number’s country code. The other two fields identified the specific computer on that network. “Network identification allows up to 256 distinct networks,” wrote Kahn and Cerf. “This seems sufficient for the foreseeable future. Similarly, the TCP identifier field permits up to 65,536 distinct [computers] to be addressed, which seems more than sufficient for any given network.” Time would prove these statements to be among their few failures of vision.

It wasn’t especially easy to convince the managers of other networks, who came from different cultures and were all equally convinced that their way of doings things was the best way, to accept the standard being shoved in their faces by the long and condescending arm of the American government. Still, the reality was that TCP was as solid and efficient a protocol as anyone could ask for, and there were huge advantages to be had by linking up with the ARPANET, where more cutting-edge computer research was happening than anywhere else. Late in 1975, the NPL network in Britain, the second largest in the world, officially joined up. After that, the Internet began to take on an unstoppable momentum of its own. In 1981, with the number of individual networks on it barreling with frightening speed toward the limit of 256, a new addressing scheme was hastily adopted, one which added a fourth field to each computer’s telephone number to create the format we are still familiar with today.

Amidst all the enthusiasm for communicating across networks, the distinctions between them were gradually lost. The Internet became just the Internet, and no one much knew or cared whether any given computer was on the ARPANET or the NPL network or somewhere else. The important thing was, it was on the Internet. The individual networks’ internal protocols came slowly to resemble that of the Internet, just because it made everything easier from a technical standpoint. In 1978, in a reflection of these trends, the TCP protocol was split into a matched pair of them called TCP/IP. The part that was called the Transmission Control Protocol was equally useful for pushing packets around a network behind a gateway, while the Internet Protocol was reserved for the methods that gateways used to pass packets across network boundaries. (This is the reason that we now refer to IP addresses rather than TCP addresses.) Beginning on January 1, 1983, all computers on the ARPANET were required to use TCP rather than NCP even when they were only talking among themselves behind their gateway.

Alas, by that point ARPA itself was not what it once had been; the golden age of blue-sky computer research on the American taxpayer’s dime had long since faded into history. One might say that the beginning of the end came as early as the fall of 1969, when a newly fiscally conservative United States Congress, satisfied that the space race had been won and the Soviets left in the country’s technological dust once again, passed an amendment to the next year’s Department of Defense budget which specified that any and all research conducted by agencies like ARPA must have “a direct and apparent relationship” to the actual winning of wars by the American military. Dedicated researchers and administrators found that they could still keep their projects alive afterward by providing such justifications in the form of lengthy, perhaps deliberately obfuscated papers, but it was already a far cry from the earlier days of effectively blank checks. In 1972, as if to drive home a point to the eggheads in its ranks who made a habit of straying too far out of their lanes, the Defense Department officially renamed ARPA to DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Late in 1973, Larry Roberts left ARPA. His replacement the following January was none other than J.C.R. Licklider, who had reluctantly agreed to another tour of duty in the Pentagon only when absolutely no one else proved willing to step up.

But, just as this was no longer quite the same ARPA, it was no longer quite the same Lick. He had continued to be a motivating force for computer networking from behind the scenes at MIT during recent years, but his decades of burning the candle at both ends, of living on fast food and copious quantities of Coca Cola, were now beginning to take their toll. He suffered from chronic asthma which left him constantly puffing at an inhaler, and his hands had a noticeable tremor that would later reveal itself to be an early symptom of Parkinson’s disease. In short, he was not the man to revive ARPA in an age of falling rather than rising budgets, of ever increasing scrutiny and internecine warfare as everyone tried to protect their own pet projects, at the expense of those of others if necessary. “When there is scarcity, you don’t have a community,” notes Vint Cerf, who perchance could have made a living as a philosopher if he hadn’t chosen software engineering. “All you have is survival.”

Lick did the best he could, but after Steve Lukasik too left, to be replaced by a tough cookie who grilled everyone who proposed doing anything about its concrete military value, he felt he could hold on no longer. Lick’s second tenure at ARPA ended in September of 1975. Many computing insiders would come to mark that day as the one when a door shut forever on this Defense Department agency’s oddly idealistic past. When it came to new projects at least, DARPA from now on would content itself with being exactly what its name said it ought to be. Luckily, the Internet already existed, and had already taken on a life of its own.

Lick wound up back at MIT, the congenial home to which this prodigal son had been regularly returning since 1950. He took his place there among the younger hackers of the Dynamic Modeling Group, whose human-focused approach to computing caused him to favor them over their rivals at the AI Lab. If Lick wasn’t as fast on his feet as he once had been, he could still floor you on occasion with a cogent comment or the perfect question.

Some of the DMG folks who now surrounded him would go on to form Infocom, an obsession of the early years of this website, a company whose impact on the art of digital storytelling can still be felt to this day.[1]In fact, Lick agreed to join Infocom’s board of directors, although his role there was a largely ceremonial one; he was not a gamer himself, and had little knowledge of or interest in the commercial market for home-computer games that had begun to emerge by the beginning of the 1980s. Still, everyone involved with the company remembers that he genuinely exulted at Infocom’s successes and commiserated with their failures, just as he did with those of all of his former students. One of them was a computer-science student named Tim Anderson, who met the prophet in their ranks often in the humble surroundings of a terminal room.

He signed up for his two hours like everybody else. You’d come in and find this old guy sitting there with a bottle of Coke and a brownie. And it wasn’t even a good brownie; he’d be eating one of those vending-machine things as if that was a perfectly satisfying lunch. Then I also remember that he had these funny-colored glasses with yellow lenses; he had some theory that they helped him see better.

When you learned what he had done, it was awesome. He was clearly the father of us all. But you’d never know it from talking to him. Instead, there was always a sense that he was playing. I always felt that he liked and respected me, even though he had no reason to: I was no smarter than anybody else. I think everybody in the group felt the same way, and that was a big part of what made the group the way it was.

In 1979, Lick penned the last of his periodic prognostications of the world’s networked future, for a book of essays about the abstract future of computing that was published by the MIT Press. As before, he took the year 2000 as the watershed point.

On the whole, computer technology continues to advance along the curve it has followed in its three decades of history since World War II. The amount of information that can be stored for a given period or processed in a given way at unit cost doubles every two years. (The 21 years from 1979 to 2000 yielded ten doublings, for a factor of about 1000.) Wave guides, optical fibers, rooftop satellite antennas, and coaxial cables provide abundant bandwidth and inexpensive digital transmission both locally and over long distances. Computer consoles with good graphics displays and speech input and output have become almost as common as television sets. Some pocket computers are fully programmable, as powerful as IBM 360/40s used to be, and are equipped with both metallic and radio connectors to computer-communication networks.

An international network of digital computer-communication networks serves as the main and essential medium of informational interaction for governments, institutions, corporations, and individuals. The Multinet [i.e., Internet], as it is called, is hierarchical — some of the component networks are themselves networks of networks — and many of the top-level networks are national networks. The many sub-networks that comprise this network of networks are electronically and physically interconnected. Most of them handle real-time speech as well as computer messages, and some handle video.

The Multinet has supplanted the postal system for letters, the dial-telephone system for conversations and teleconferences, standalone batch-processing and time-sharing systems for computation, and most filing cabinets, microfilm repositories, document rooms, and libraries for information storage and retrieval. Many people work at home, interacting with clients and coworkers through the Multinet, and many business offices (and some classrooms) are little more than organized interconnections of such home workers and their computers. People shop through the Multinet, using its funds-transfer functions, and a few receive delivery of small items through adjacent pneumatic-tube networks. Routine shopping and appointment scheduling are generally handled by private-secretary-like programs called OLIVERs which know their masters’ needs. Indeed, the Multinet handles scheduling of almost everything schedulable. For example, it eliminates waiting to be seated at restaurants and if you place your order through it it can eliminate waiting to be served…

But for the first time, Lick also chose to describe a dystopian scenario to go along with the utopian one, stating that the former was just as likely as the latter if open standards like TCP/IP, and the spirit of cooperation that they personified, got pushed away in favor of closed networks and business models. If that happened, the world’s information spaces would be siloed off from one another, and humanity would have lost a chance it never even realized it had.

Because their networks are diverse and uncoordinated, recalling the track-gauge situation in the early days of railroading, the independent “value-added-carrier” companies capture only the fringes of the computer-communication market, the bulk of it being divided between IBM (integrated computer-communication systems based on satellites) and the telecommunications companies (transmission services but not integrated computer-communication services, no remote-computing services)…

Electronic funds transfer has not replaced money, as it turns out, because there were too many uncoordinated bank networks and too many unauthorized and inexplicable transfers of funds. Electronic message systems have not replaced mail, either, because there were too many uncoordinated governmental and commercial networks, with no network at all reaching people’s homes, and messages suffered too many failures of transfers…

Looking back on these two scenarios from the perspective of 2022, when we stand almost exactly as far beyond Lick’s watershed point as he stood before it, we can note with gratification that his more positive scenario turned out to be the more correct one; if some niceties such as computer speech recognition didn’t arrive quite on his time frame, the overall network ecosystem he described certainly did. We might be tempted to contemplate at this point that the J.C.R. Licklider of 1979 may have been older in some ways than his 64 years, being a man who had known as much failure as success over the course of a career spanning four and a half impossibly busy decades, and we might be tempted to ascribe his newfound willingness to acknowledge the pessimistic as well as the optimistic to these factors alone.

But I believe that to do so would be a mistake. It is disarmingly easy to fall into a mindset of inevitability when we consider the past, to think that the way things turned out are the only way they ever could have. In truth, the open Internet we are still blessed with today, despite the best efforts of numerous governments and corporations to capture and close it, may never have been a terribly likely outcome; we may just possibly have won an historical lottery. When you really start to dig into the subject, you find that there are countless junctures in the story where things could have gone very differently indeed.

Consider: way back in 1971, amidst the first rounds of fiscal austerity at ARPA, Larry Roberts grew worried about whether he would be able to convince his bosses to continue funding the fledgling ARPANET at all. Determined not to let it die, he entered into serious talks with AT&T about the latter buying the whole kit and caboodle. After months of back and forth, AT&T declined, having decided there just wasn’t any money to be made there. What would have happened if AT&T had said yes, and the ARPANET had fallen into the hands of such a corporation at this early date? Not only digital history but a hugely important part of recent human history would surely have taken a radically different course. There would not, for instance, have ever been a TCP/IP protocol to run the Internet if ARPA had washed their hands of the whole thing before Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf could create it.

And so it goes, again and again and again. It was a supremely unlikely confluence of events, personalities, and even national moods that allowed the ARPANET to come into being at all, followed by an equally unlikely collection of same that let its child the Internet survive down to the present day with its idealism a bit tarnished but basically intact. We spend a lot of time lamenting the horrific failures of history. This is understandable and necessary — but we should also make some time here and there for its crazy, improbable successes.

On October 4, 1985, J.C.R. Licklider finally retired from MIT for good. His farewell dinner that night had hundreds of attendees, all falling over themselves to pay him homage. Lick himself, now 70 years old and visibly infirm, accepted their praise shyly. He seemed most touched by the speakers who came to the podium late in the evening, after the big names of academia and industry: the group of students who had taken to calling themselves “Lick’s kids” — or, in hacker parlance, “lixkids.”

“When I was an undergraduate,” said one of them, “Lick was just a nice guy in a corner office who gave us all a wonderful chance to become involved with computers.”

“I’d felt I was the only one,” recalled another of the lixkids later. “That somehow Lick and I had this mystical bond, and nobody else. Yet during that evening I saw that there were 200 people in the room, 300 people, and that all of them felt that same way. Everybody Lick touched felt that he was their hero and that he had been an extraordinarily important person in their life.”

J.C.R. Licklider died on June 26, 1990, just as the networked future he had so fondly envisioned was about to become a tangible reality for millions of people, thanks to a confluence of three factors: an Internet that was descended from the original ARPANET, itself the realization of Lick’s own Intergalactic Computer Network; a new generation of cheap and capable personal computers that were small enough to sit on desktops and yet could do far more than the vast majority of the machines Lick had had a chance to work on; and a new and different way of navigating texts and other information spaces, known as hypertext theory. In the next article, we’ll see how those three things yielded the World Wide Web, a place as useful and enjoyable for the ordinary folks of the world as it is for computing’s intellectual elites. Lick, for one, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

(Sources: the books A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton; Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology edited by Jeremy M. Norman, The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop, A History of Modern Computing (2nd ed.) by Paul E. Ceruzzi, Communication Networks: A Concise Introduction by Jean Walrand and Shyam Parekh, Computing in the Middle Ages by Severo M. Ornstein, and The Computer Age: A Twenty-Year View edited by Michael L. Dertouzos and Joel Moses.)


1 In fact, Lick agreed to join Infocom’s board of directors, although his role there was a largely ceremonial one; he was not a gamer himself, and had little knowledge of or interest in the commercial market for home-computer games that had begun to emerge by the beginning of the 1980s. Still, everyone involved with the company remembers that he genuinely exulted at Infocom’s successes and commiserated with their failures, just as he did with those of all of his former students.