The Internet Explained
The exponential growth of the Internet has been phenomenal. Or has it? Perhaps it is only to be expected when the cumulative acts of creation culminate in the proliferation of Mankind’s greatest achievement: the ability to communicate – but globally and with astonishing, lightning speed.
Once the preserve of the scientific and military communities, the Internet has now blossomed into a vehicle of expression and research for the common person with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new pages being added to the World Wide Web every day and tens of millions of searches being performed through our ubiquitous search engines, the likes of Google, Yahoo!, Bing and other portals to the Internet delivering results to queries in our incessant quest for information.
In the Begining
Some 45 years ago the search for knowledge was no less insatiable but the storage, collation, selection and retrieval technologies were rudimentary and the expense enormous by today’s standards. 65 years passed, with WWII at an end and the might, energy and focused intellect of galvanised nations waging war, the first computers were being built along with man-machine interfaces. It is at this time that visionaries first hinted at the possibilities of extending human intellect by automating mundane, repetitive processes, devolving them into machines. One such man, Vannevar Bush, in his 1945 essay, ‘As We May Think‘ envisaged a time when a machine called a ‘memex’ might enhance human memory by the storage and retrieval of documents linked by association, in much the same way as the cognitive processes of the brain link and enforce memories by association.
Post-War Development and the Internet
Bush’s contribution to computing science, although remarkable, was far less critical than his efforts to unite the military and scientific communities together with business leaders, resulting in the birth of the National Defence Research Committee (NDRC) which was later to become the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). In short, Bush galvanised research into technology as the key determinant in winning the Second World War and established respect for science within the military.
A few years after the war the National Science Foundation (NSF) was set up, paving the way for subsequent government backed scientific institutions and ensuring the American nation’s commitment to scientific research. Then in 1958, perhaps in direct response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created, and, in 1962, employed a psychologist by the name of Joseph Licklider. He built upon Bush’s contributions by presaging the development of the modern PC and computer networking and was responsible for penning ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis‘, a paper on the relationship between man and machine.
Having acquired a computer from the US Air Force and heading up a couple of research teams, he initiated research contracts with leading computer institutions and companies who would later go on to form the ARPANET and lay down the foundations of the first networked computing group. Together they overcame problems associated with connecting computers delivered from different manufacturers whose disparate communications protocols meant direct communications was unsustainable, if not impossible.
It is interesting to note that Licklider was not primarily a computer man; he was a psychologist interested in the functionality of human thought but his considerations on the working of the human mind brought him into the fold of computing as a natural extension of his interest.
Another key player, Douglas Engelbart, entered web history at this point. After gaining his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and an Assistant Professorship at Berkeley, he set up a research laboratory – the Augmentation Research Center – to examine the human interface and storage and retrieval systems, producing NLS (oNLine System) with ARPA funding, the first system to use hypertext (coined by Ted Nelson in 1965) for collation of documents – and is credited as the developer of the first mouse or pointing device.
All the while visionary minds were laying the groundwork for the Internet, the hardware giants were consolidating their computing initiatives: Bell produced the first 300 baud commercial modem, the Bell 103, sold by ATT; DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) released the PDP-8 mass-produced minicomputer; and the first live transatlantic TV broadcast took place via ATT’s Telstar 1 satellite.
Credit must be afforded to another thinker, Paul Baran, for conceiving the use of packets, small chunks of a message which could be reconstituted at the destination, upon which current internet transmission and reception are based. Working at the RAND Corporation and with funding from government grants into Cold War technology, Baran examined the workings of data transmission systems, specifically, their survivability in the advent of nuclear attack. He turned to the idea of distributed networks comprising numerous interconnected nodes. Should one node fail the remainder of the network would still function. Across this network, his packets of information would be routed and switched to take the optimum route and reconstructed at their destination into the original whole message. Modern-day packet switching is controlled automatically by such routers.
ON TO PART 2 – Arpanet
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Article: The Internet Explained (Part.1) written by Vincent Zegna and Mike Pepper. Published 23rd November 2005.