Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

1.6. Where did the Internet come from?

The Internet was never truly created as an entity of its own. It is an amalgamation of many earlier networks. The story of how the Internet was born has been told hundreds of times in hundreds of books, magazine articles, and online documents. But I think it's a law that every book about the Internet must tell the story. Without further ado, here it is. (I'll tell it as quickly as I can.)

In 1969, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the U.S. government's Department of Defense, set up the first parts of the network that would eventually become the Internet. At the time, the network was called the ARPAnet. The ARPAnet would link the military, defense contractors and universities in one seamless computer network.

A major problem with computer networks at the time was every machine on a network needed to be operating for the network to function at all. Imagine three computers connected in a row; if the machine in the middle went down (for maintenance, for instance) the first and last computers couldn't communicate. If you were the U.S. government in the middle of a cold war, this was bad. Networks of that type could never be very reliable.

The ARPAnet would be the first network of its kind for many reasons--primarily because it was decentralized, with no central computer running the show. Further, if one computer on the network should go down, it was imperative that the others retain the capability of communicating. (You can imagine why this was important to the United States military, which would be more than a little disappointed should their entire network of computers be rendered inoperable by a single well-placed bomb.) The ARPAnet would need to link any number of computers and automatically reroute information should some of those computers go offline.

The ARPANet began by linking four locations: Stanford University, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah.

The ARPAnet expanded to nonmilitary uses in the 70s when universities and defense-related researchers were permitted to join the network. By the late 70s, the ARPAnet was so large that its original set of standards and communication protocols could not support the growth of the network. After extended bickering and debate, the ARPAnet switched to the TCP/IP communication protocols (still in use today), which would allow further growth in the size of the network. By 1983, all computers on the ARPAnet were using TCP/IP.

By 1983, it became clear that most use of the ARPAnet was for nonmilitary purposes, so it was split into two networks: one part became MILNET, a Department of Defense military-only network, and the rest remained ARPAnet, which would resume its job of connecting research sites and other nonmilitary users. The networks continued to grow.

In 1987, the National Science Foundation created their own network, called NSFnet. The NSFnet would be a high-speed "backbone" network to support the burgeoning number of networked users as well as new bandwidth-intensive applications. The ARPAnet and the NSFNET, similar in structure and purpose, began to cooperate and merge. By the late 80s, the ARPANet was absorbed by the NSFnet. (Today, the NSFnet remains a major "backbone" of Internet connections in the United States.

In the mid 80s, the National Science Foundation began to provide funding for the establishment of research and academic networks throughout the United States. It began linking those networks to the NSFnet. The same sorts of things were happening all over the world--educators, bureaucrats and hobbyists plugging their computers into networks and those networks into other networks.

The NSFnet's charter was to support education and research. It was (and is) considered inappropriate to use that network for commercial purposes. Although the guidelines of what you could and couldn't do were vague, the NSFnet's appropriate use policies made it clear that for most purposes, commercial activity was forbidden. In many cases, even though it was possible to send business information from two NSFnet-linked networks, it wasn't allowed.

In 1991, a group of small commercial networks created a network of their own--the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX)--which would allow commercial use and be free of those nasty appropriate use policies. Now, commercial users were able to connect with each other quickly and legally by networking with CIX rather than the NSFnet. What this meant was commercial collaboration, technical support by e-mail, pay-for-use databases, you name it. The formation of the CIX gave yet another boost to the growth of the Internet.

Now it's today and here we are. Commercial activity on the Net is continuing its unprecedented growth, but that certainly hasn't hurt the scientific, educational, and research networks (which are also growing by leaps and bounds.) The Internet--a combination of the NSFnet, ARPAnet, the CIX, and about 10,000 other networks--will continue to grow and change, meeting the needs of the people who want it, no matter what they use it for.

Note: For a more complete history of the Internet, use the anonymous FTP program to get the following files. (If you're a new Internet user, please pardon this lapse into techspeak. I want you to know where to find this information, even if you don't yet know how to get it!) Anonymous FTP from is thoroughly covered in Chapter 6, "How Can I Find and Use Software (and Other Stuff)?" Brief History of the Internet and Related Networks_ by V. Cerf

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