top of page

The birth of the internet …

No-one knows exactly but it’s a pretty fair guess that at any moment several hundred million people are communicating with each other, working, sharing, living big chunks of their lives via internet conferencing platforms.  Doctors diagnose, businesses operate, concerts and theatre happen, parliaments sit – all in virtual space.  But where and how did this technology emerge?

To answer that we have to go back quite a way.  Communication has always been important and plenty of inventors have worked on the problem, from the early days of semaphore and heliographs which could outpace even the fastest horses through to telegraph, telephone, radio and the other wonders of the 20th century.  Some big names were involved as well – Edison, Tesla, Marconi, Bell, all chasing down the elusive possibility of widespread fast communication over a distance.

One group of people with a particular interest has always been the military – knowing what’s going on on the battlefield and in the political circles around it is crucial as swords or guns.  But in the 1960s during the Cold War there was an urgent concern – nuclear weapons raised the possibility of whole communication systems being wiped out.  What was needed was some form of decentralized communication network – and so funds began to move in the direction of finding out how.

At the same time the burgeoning world of computing was drawing in a variety of people and swirling them together in what would become an important soup of ideas.  For example Bob Taylor, a restless psychology student who dabbled in psycho acoustics but who had a passion for what the new technology might do.  One which he shared with Joseph Licklider  who he met in 1962 after reading Licklider’s essay on ‘Man-machine symbiosis’ in which he talked about new ways or working with computers.  They began talking and developing a vision, one which in 1965 began to take more tangible shape as Licklider persuaded Taylor to join him in working together at IPTO.

IPTO?  The Information Processing Techniques Office was part of the huge Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which was looking at the decentralized communication problem, specifically ways of  linking the major defence computers of the Pentagon, the SAC HQ and at Cheyenne Mountain, the secretive complex buried under housing NORAD.  IPTO gave the two men the opportunity (and the funding diverted from a ballistic missile project) to explore the idea of an ARPANet linking different computers at different locations.  (Their nickname for the loose community of researchers engaged around the project was an indicator of their underlying ambition – the Intergalactic Computer Network)!

Two key ideas emerged during the early stages of the project; in 1966 one of their team, Wesley Clark, suggested that they use a dedicated computer- an Interface Message Processor to give it its grand title – at each node of the network instead of one large centralised controller.  And then in 1967 they went to a conference on new computer techniques…..

The postman always rings twice – or more

The problem of decentralised communications isn’t just one of making sure enough computers survive an attack and can link up with each other.  There’s also the challenge of making sure whatever messages they send arrive safely.  One idea being explored simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic was to break the messages themselves down into small chunks, transmit them in different routes across a computer network and then reassemble them at their destination.  And it was this idea that so excited the ARPANet team, drawing in the ideas of Paul Baran (working for the RAND Corporation in the US) and Donald Davies of the UK National Physical Laboratory (who had developed a local area network based on what he called ‘packet switching’).   A third player, Leonard Kleinrock contributed the underlying mathematical models which enabled the theory to be put into practice.

The basic idea is like a postal network.  One in which the postman doesn’t take the same route and often rings many times. The message you want to send is broken down into small chunks – packets – each of which is given a destination address and some other identifying information and then sent via different routed before being reassembled at that destination address.  A message goes back the other way confirming receipt; if that doesn’t happen the sender repeats the transmission.

The birth of the Internet

On October 29, 1969, ARPAnet delivered its first message: a “node-to-node” communication from