The Ancient History Of The Internet


On Friday evening, October 4, 1957, RAND’s analysts, along with Pentagon officials and the American public, were jolted upright by Sputnik I . The Soviet Union followed Sputnik I with another satellite carrying the dog Laika. No matter that Laika blasted into orbit on a one-way ticket; America had expected to be first into space. The nation’s image as a technology superpower and its perceived lead in the Cold War were badly shaken. Most frightening of all, its cities suddenly seemed vulnerable to Soviet attack. One of the authors of this article was a young hotshot reporter covering the Pentagon for the International News Service during the Sputnik frenzy. He still remembers the overheated lead of his Saturday “follow story,” played prominently by newspapers around the country: “The same Soviet rocket that sent a satellite into orbit Friday can deliver an ICBM warhead on New York and Washington….”

Everything went on the table for panicky review. In hopes of producing graduates who could outthink the Soviets, high schools and colleges boosted their math and science requirements. The president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, told parents to admonish their children, “For your own sake and for the sake of the nation, do your homework.” The “space race” (a.k.a. the “missile gap”) also affected university budgets. The Defense Department created yet another O.K. group, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and charged it with doling out high-tech research funds.

Among ARPA’s first priorities were projects on command, control, and communication, known among war planners as C3. The Defense Department wanted to use computers not only in the Pentagon but also in the field. Bulky, balky mainframes of the era were ill suited for the battlefield, so ARPA sought a communications solution. For signals sent from a battlefield terminal to reach a headquarters-based computer, they would have to be translated from wire to radio to satellite and back. Nothing like it had ever been done before. In fact, most computer time-sharing then involved transportation rather than communication: Computer scientists keyed their jobs onto paper tapes or punch cards and then shipped them to the closest computing center.

At the same time, America’s command posts were burrowing underground in the name of C3 and “nuclear survivability.” NORAD, the air defense headquarters, carved a control center into the side of a Colorado mountain. In Washington nuclear-war plans called for evacuating the President and key officials to supersecret reinforced shelters in the Catoctin Mountains in nearby Maryland, while all 535 members of Congress were supposed to hole up in an elaborate complex under the grounds of the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. From these subterranean hideouts, federal officials would govern the nation—that is, the parts that survived.

The network would enable researchers to share the few supercomputers of the era, so the government needn’t keep buying more.

The war-planning needs of the military and the research interests of computer scientists began to converge. The Pentagon asked RAND to analyze how the military could communicate (by voice telephone as well as data hookups) after a nuclear war. The existing phone network seemed far too fragile for such a task. For each call, switches in the network created a circuit between the two parties; if part of the circuit was broken, whether by an ICBM or by an errant backhoe, the connection had to be re-established from scratch.

Rand’s solution, developed by Paul Baran on an Air Force contract, was a network that could route around damage and continue to communicate. In such a system, Baran wrote, “there would be no obvious central command and control point, but all surviving points would be able to re-establish contact in the event of an attack on any one point” through a “redundancy of connectivity.” The key to creating this survivable grid was what later came to be called packet switching.

With packet switching, as Baran and others envisioned it, computers would not monopolize a circuit for the duration of their communication, as telephones do. Instead the messages would get broken up into small packets, which would flow in an intermingled stream with other packets, each of which would carry enough information to seek out its destination. Packets from a single message might take different paths to reach the destination. If one packet didn’t get through, the addressee would notify the sender to retransmit it. Then, when all the packets had arrived, the addressee would reassemble the message. The approach would be slower than having a dedicated circuit between the two points, but it would be far sturdier. If one connection broke, messages would reroute themselves. The “smarts” of the system would reside in users’ computers and in the packets themselves, not in centralized, vulnerable switching centers.

Baran, at RAND, did the basic research on packet switching, but many of his reports were classified. Donald Davies of the National Physical Laboratory in Britain independently outlined the same general concept and contributed the word packet for the message components. Other researchers also began to focus on the idea of a packet-switching architecture.