The Ancient History Of The Internet


In 1977, having left Stanford for ARPA (then called DARPA, the D for “Defense” added in 1972), Cerf worked on a different sort of interconnectivity. From a van cruising along a Bay Area freeway, a computer sent messages that traveled, by packet radio, satellite, and landlines, a total of ninety-four thousand miles. “We didn’t lose a bit!” Cerf later recalled. The project demonstrated that computers could communicate to and from the battlefield. No longer was ARPA funding pure computer science research; now DARPA insisted on what Cerf termed “militarily interesting” projects like this one. Even so, Cerfs C3 innovation arrived as the Cold War was flagging—reminiscent of how ENIAC had been delivered at the end of World War II.

Cerf has suffered severe hearing loss since birth and has worn a hearing aid since he was fourteen. It’s serendipitous but fitting, then, that his TCP/IP made possible the textbased Net communications systems so popular today, including electronic mail, discussion lists, file indexing, and hypertext. E-mail, of course, is the most widely used of the Net services, the most convenient and the most functional.

Ray Tomlinson of BBN is credited with inventing the software and sending the first e-mail messages across ARPAnet in 1972 and 1973. At first scientists used e-mail to collaborate on research projects; their computer talk was decorous, befitting a serious O.R. project that had had its origins in Soviet-American military rivalries. There were also rules to obey. ARPA limited use of the network to official business. In addition, some users worried that sending personal messages by e-mail might somehow violate the postal laws. “You’ll be in jail in no time,” RAND’s Paul Baran warned his colleagues.

Soon, however, a graduate-student hacker attitude took over. Mailing-list software permitted large groups of people to discuss common interests, making e-mail a mass medium as well as a point-to-point one. The first list, SF-LOVERS , linked science fiction fans. “ARPA was fairly liberal … but they did occasionally put their foot down,” Bernie Cosell, an early ARPAnet user, later recalled. When ARPA brass complained, SF-LOVERS was shut down—only to rise again a few months later, after users had managed to convince ARPA that the mailing list was serving the vital purpose of testing the network’s mail capacity. Soon the network was carrying NETWORK-HACKERS, WINETASTERS , and scores of other mailing lists. ARPAnet had come a long way from C3 and survivability. The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling captured the image best: It was “as if some grim fallout shelter had burst open and a full-scale Mardi Gras parade had come out.”

As one writer put it, the “fallout shelter had burst open and a … Mardi Gras parade had come out.”

By the mid-1980S TCP/IP was linking ARPAnet to other networks, including the NSFnet of the National Science Foundation, another federal agency, and Usenet (see box on page 38). The result was first called ARPAInternet and then simply the Internet. ARPAnet split in two, with military communications going onto MILNET and the computer researchers finally over taking ARPAnet in name as well as in practice. ARPAnet shut down in 1990, and NSFnet went off-line last April; the most heavily traveled routes of the information superhighway now are in private hands. Nearly all the various networks used the TCP/IP language. “I take great pride in the fact that the Internet has been able to migrate itself on top of every communications capability invented in the past twenty years,” Cerf told Computerworld in 1994. “I think that’s not a bad achievement.” At a major computer convention Cerf, a natty dresser who favors three-piece suits, once disrobed to display the message on his T-shirt: IP ON EVERYTHING .

More elegantly he wrote hacker poetry. When ARPAnet was decommissioned in June 1990, scarcely anyone noticed; other elements of the Internet seamlessly took over all its functions. Cerf wrote a “Requiem for the ARPAnet.” It ends: “Now pause with me a moment, shed some/ tears./ For auld lang syne, for love, for years and years/ of faithful service, duty done, I weep./ Lay down thy packet, now, O friend, and sleep.”