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I-Net Zero

reader #

The following essay is rather long but I believe it is a
good breif history of the Internet, for curious people.
FYI, at the end you can find a glossary, reference reading,
and a number of interesting Web links.
- Enjoy



The Internet and the World Wide Web have taken the country and the world my storm. Millions of people use the Internet every day. Advertisers on TV and in magazines display their Web address for you to get more information and even to buy things. Even your school has a Web page. You can easily get lost in all the information and fun places to visit on the Web at any time of the day or night.

Wheelchair Willie and I wondered just how did it all begin and when. So Willie decided to find out. Oh, first let me introduce you to Willie.

WW Thumbs up

Wheelchair Willie, WW for short, is fourteen, almost fifteen. He has grown up around computers since his Dad is a programmer. WW attends school where he uses computers, plays a lot of games on his family computer and does most of his homework using the computer. The computer is really going to make his life a whole lot better when he gets out of school. He has learned a great deal about computers and probably knows more than I do by now.

WW dug into the origin of the Internet with his normal fire and energy. Using books and searching the Internet he found out all kinds of interesting facts. A couple of days later I asked him what he had found. In his typical teenage manner he replied:
It was Licklider's idea,
started by ARPA,
BBN built it,
they used IMP's,
the first RFC was done on a toilet,
the Net uses TCP/IP and other stuff,
W3 ain't the Net,
and you surf by using a browser.


Needless to say that left me scratching my head. Over time I got Willie to explain some of the key points. In addition he put together a list of Names, a simple Glossary and a short set of References. These are at the end of this paper. The following is what WW told me about the beginning.

The first thing was news to me. I had always thought the initial Internet was put together in case there was a war with Russia. The idea was to link computers together using multiple and different routes, redundancy, so that if one computer was hit by a bomb the other computers could still talk to each other and continue doing work. There were several people like Paul Baran who were thinking along those lines but that was not the real reason for the Internet.

Bob Taylor of ARPA was really interested in cutting costs and improving research. You see ARPA spends a lot of money on research and Bob Taylor was responsible for the Budget of the department. He wanted to do the most with the dollars he had. Mr. Taylor believed that when computers were linked together then researchers would share information and improve their work. Linking computers would also allow ARPA to buy fewer computers for the same project and allow projects to be spread out to different places at the same time. Instead of buying separate computers for each site across the country working on different parts of the same project, the different groups could use the same computer in one place. As WW stated, The Internet was just plain old good business, not designed for war.


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One day at school a classmate asked WW, Hey Wheelchair, who's your favorite group these days? Willie threw up his hands and said, Lick tha Stick and the IMP Guys, with Heart in the lead! They are one driven group! This caused WW's friend's eyes to cross but Willie was referring to the group that got the Internet started.
ww hands up

Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider was know to his friends as Lick. Everyone seemed to like Lick and he seemed to influence more people in the networking world than anyone else. He probably got some of his personality from his father, a Baptist preacher from Missouri. Lick had an acute mind and was all the time getting into something new. Since he was so sharp and loved to teach, people just followed him and listen to what he had to say.

Lick is not as well know as many in the computer world but his ideas were evolutionary steps. He wrote a paper in 1960 call Man-Computer Symbiosis which is a classic to this day and influenced more people than will ever be known. It was revolutionary, expressing the thought that computers could be used for more than crunching numbers. Lick thought that computers were extensions of the human being. His paper stated that a coupling of human and computers would result in cooperative decision making, or the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Even 35 years later his paper is a model of computer theory.

As stated, Lick influenced a lot of people. One of them was Larry Roberts of ARPA. Larry sent out a request for proposal to have some company build the machines to connect multiple computers together. The contract was given to a company call BBN in late 1968. It so happened that Lick influenced people at BBN because he worked there at the time.

BBN agreed to build the first computer designed to send messages between computers. They called it the Interface Message Processor, IMP. BBN had only eight months to make the first one. So they formed a strong team, the IMP Guys, lead by a man named Jim Heart. They worked like crazy and delivered the first IMP on time to UCLA on October 1, 1969. A month later they delivered the second IMP to the Stanford Research Institute. The first link of the Internet was made in November 1969. Thus WW's favorite group was Lick the Stick and tha IMP Guys.

ww point made
Interface Message Processor

By today's standards the IMP was primitive. Its sole purpose was to take a message from one computer, host, and get that message to another IMP that gave it to another host. The machine was built by Honeywell, their model DDP-516, with a lot of improvements suggested by BBN. It was the size of a refrigerator, had only 12K of memory, did not have a disk storage, and had no software. The IMP Guys wrote all the software and made it into a rock solid machine that served it's purpose for twenty years.


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WW discovered what makes the Internet work is a technology call packet-switching. This technology was invented by two men at the same time, across the ocean from each other, and who did not know about the other's work. It must have been a good idea. Both Paul Baran in America and Donald Watts Davis in England developed the theory. This method of transmission became the backbone of the Internet.

Every different kind of computer uses its own internal language to do work and each runs at a little different speed. Thus there is a problem trying to get two computers to talk to each other. There is also a problem in getting all the data from one computer to another over telephone lines both very fast and in tact.

Packet-switching is a technology where one computer's message is broken into pieces of a fixed number of characters, has a destination address put in front of those characters, and a checksum to follow those characters. This becomes a packet, each of the same length. The first computer, the source, creates packets then hands them off to the communications computers. These computers, like the IMP's, read the address and send the packets toward their destination. Along the way each packet is examined by other communications computers and these computers switch the packet's route to keep it going toward its final location. At the destination all the packets are collected, the messages are taken out and put back together, then the full message is handed off to the destination computer. All this stuff is real fast.

This packet-switching technology was in the original Internet design proposal and is the reason messages almost always get through and complete.

ww point made
K. I. S. S.

This stands for Keep It Simple Stupid and it was the principle used by BBN as they designed the system. While the work of the computers in the communications system is very complex, getting a message into the system is simply a matter of following written directions. The KISS principle is still quite valid and has allowed millions of users to access the Internet. (However, BBN found out there were a lot of questions even when a detailed manual was provided. Answering those same questions time after time as new users were added is probably why the term RTFM was coined, but ask a grown-up what it means.)


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One interesting character in the early implementation of the Internet was a California dude, Steve Crocker, and his side-kick Vint Cerf. (Vint was a nerd, but popular with the girls, who later was credited with developing much of the Internet protocols, but in 1969 he kinda hung out with Steve.) Steve was attending UCLA as a graduate student, soaking up the rays, when he and Vint were assigned to write the host interface program between the school's computer and the first IMP.

This gave Steve the chance to do some traveling, expenses paid. He had to work with the other schools to make sure the interface was consistent for all. This traveling and set of meetings formed the first Internet Working Group to establish the Host Interface Specifications. Steve got volunteered to write up the meeting notes and get them distributed. He did this in a format he call an RFC, Request for Comments. The format was highly successful and is still used today to discuss new ideas over the Internet. (It is a true fact that Steve wrote the first RFC sitting alone on the toilet in his bathroom. Creative ideas come at strange times.)

In the typical laid back California manner, Steve put off writing the host code until just before the first IMP was delivered. In fact, the code was finished on the day the IMP arrived. Also common to Steve's work, his code worked the first time. A month later when the second IMP was installed, Steve participated in establishing the first Internet link, November 1969.


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As WW did his research he found many interesting facts. Many of them were obvious and now are common knowledge but at the time, they were profound. For example, the idea to have a sub-network to carry messages between computers was not the first plan.

In the early 1960's Bob Taylor of ARPA was at a computer conference explaining to the assembly how he wanted to link computers together across the country. Bob's plan was to have the big computers talk to each other. The people at the conference were not in favor of this plan because they did not want their computers to be tied up handling data messages. Also, when the big computer was busy, no messages could get through and some messages would be delayed a long time.



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