The Ancient History Of The Internet


The Internet seems so now, so happening, so information age, that its Gen-X devotees might find the uncool circumstances of its birth hard to grasp. More than anything the computer network connecting tens of millions of users stands as a modern—albeit unintended—monument to military plans for fighting three wars. Specifically, the Net owes its existence to Allied battle strategies during World War II, to the geopolitical pressures of the Cold War, and to preparations for the postapocalypse of nuclear holocaust (the never-fought “final war” with the Soviet Union).


This is not a lineage the cyberenthusiasts dwell on. An effusive profile of the father of the Internet in The New York Times in September 1994 skipped entirely the circumstances of his cyberpaternity, while an extended account of the birth of the Internet a month earlier in Newsweek mentioned U.S. military sponsorship in one tangential clause but said not a word about why the Pentagon funded the project in the first place. Perhaps these strange omissions—we’re almost tempted to say Strangelovian omissions—are understandable. Internet boosters have created an instant mythology, featuring a fiercely libertarian “hackers’ ethic” and the “freewheeling, untamable soul” of Cyberspace (to quote a recent paean in Time magazine). The G.I.—government issue—stamp seems to let some of the hot air out of the hype.

An open-minded recounting of the Internet story, however, still leaves room for individual medals all around, while affirming how once upon a time government, universities, and industry worked together to produce what the late Ithiel de Sola Pool of MIT called “the largest machine that man has ever constructed.”

As with most great advances in the history of ideas, there was no one defining Internet event. No apple fell on a cyber-Isaac Newton. Nor did any visionary set out to build a new communications medium. Rather it began with a modest analytical system, devised early in World War II, that set the stage for the supportive research environment and the key technical developments that produced today’s global network.

The Pentagon needed to find a way to communicate after a nuclear war. The solution was a network that could bypass damage.

The analytical system, called operations research, applied scientific modeling principles to military planning. The first O.R. was done for the Allies by military scientists and civilian technologists. These boffins (as the British called them) conducted statistical studies of antisubmarine tactics that showed how the Allies could increase the U-boat kill rate by setting the charges to explode at a different depth. O.K. also devised a way to coordinate radar-operated antiaircraft batteries with the flight patterns of friendly interceptor aircraft, to avoid shooting down Allied fighter planes. Modern warfare, it became obvious, was too complex to be left to intuition; measurement and mathematical analysis were required. (Hitler, relying on a dream he had in which he learned that no German V-2 rocket would ever reach England, critically delayed the Nazi missile development program. Many Allied troops and British civilians owe their lives to his unscientific decision.)

To conduct such analyses, the military sought more powerful calculating devices. In 1944 Howard Aiken, a Harvard physics instructor, unveiled the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, which he nicknamed the Harvard Mark I. Almost immediately this immense machine—more than fifty feet long, containing 750,000 parts, and weighing thirty-five tons —was put to work factoring ballistics tables for the Navy. Meanwhile, Army-funded engineers at the University of Pennsylvania worked on a machine to calculate artillery trajectories. Their handiwork, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), represented a major development in computing technology, though not one that helped the Allied effort; it was delivered just weeks after the war’s end.

Following the victories in Europe and Japan, American military planners turned attention to their new Cold War adversaries, primarily the Soviet Union but also China (known then as Red China). The three U.S. military services contracted out O.R. work to universities and nonprofit corporations. This produced, among others, the Center for Naval Analysis, administered by the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia; the Army-backed Operations Research Office, run by Johns Hopkins University; and, perhaps the most effective of all, the RAND Corporation, the Air Force’s principal advisory organization. Initially a technical adjunct of the Douglas Aircraft Company, of Santa Monica, RAND separated from the plane maker in 1948 and was incorporated under California law as a nonprofit company (the name is an acronym for Research and Development). Its initial budget of three million dollars came largely from the Air Force. According to Bruce Smith, a Harvardtrained political scientist who worked at RAND in the 1960s, the Air Force, the newest and least tradition-bound service, was able to “experiment more easily with novel organization forms.”