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Appeared on: Wednesday, June 01, 2005
The Origins of the Internet


1. Page 1

Roughly speaking most people are familiar with the history of the Internet. In its efforts to produce a nuclear-proof communication system the American government assigned the development of a multi-node communication system that would not be operated by a specific center, to the well known RAND (Research And Development) research center. Thus, in case of a node been struck by the enemy the network would be operational when bypassing the faulty node. That simple, and ingenious at the same time idea, was met with terrifying opposition when it came to be realized, as the network architect, Paul Baran, has revealed in an interview of his, for the Wired magazine: the biggest threat for the new network, Baran says, was not the USSR, but the AT&T, the telephone company with exclusive rights in the USA. The irony of it was, that the company did not respond negatively due to the fact that it was in position of foreseeing the ominous future in store for it, but because its executives could not…comprehend what the network was. The philosophy of hierarchy prevailed at the time. Even a communication network that would not comply with a specific chain of command seemed absurd.

Reminiscing the dark, owing to the cold war, as well as productive period of the early 1960s, Paul Baran comes up with some amazing facts linked with the birth of the Internet, all those details that made history. He remembers that the RAND building was planned by the mathematician John Williams in such a way that all the routes between any two of its premises would produce the highest possible number of accidental encounters amongst researchers. “The system worked”, he says. “It is a hard task indeed, to try and bring together people with different skills-during that period RAND was the place of work for a number of people whose fields of expertise ranged from physics to sociology. Yet that institute was the most productive place I have ever come across.”

The Internet might have not been brought to existence had that misconception about the nuclear potential of the Soviet Union not prevailed. Numerous army officers, probably driven by motives having to do with their personal interests, had overstated the nuclear threat rooted in the USSR. They had been talking about communist Russia’s huge potential to blow lethal strikes against the USA and so on, a claim to be proved false after the launch of military satellites. Panic was spread when missiles, and more specifically the intercontinental ballistic ones started being fed with solid fuel. Prior to that, while the use of liquid fuel was in process, intelligence on fueling missiles would easily reach the countries involved. Now, with the use of solid fuels the missiles were in full operational readiness any time, any place. In case of a nuclear war all radio communication would cease since the ionosphere would be disrupted for an hour. The inland communication centers were specific (and as a matter of fact known to the Soviets), therefore in case of a sudden attack, no order for retaliation could be given. Thus, military authorities in both sides got involved in a research race aiming to build a network that would be invulnerable to nuclear attack.


2. Page 2

The first to be crowned with success were the United States Air Force researchers. They utilized the dense private radio station network in the United States and partly the frequency that was not used by them (both radio and television stations do not make use of a large part of the frequency bands allotted to them, through which, nowadays, teletext or RDS signals are transmitted). This way, without the radio stations knowing anything about the whole thing, they built up a tape machine network responsible for transmitting, in their frequency, Air Force signals.

That must have been the first Internet network in the world. The next step was the creation of the ARPANET (that was the predecessor of the Internet), which also utilized an already existing dense private network, the one used by the telephone companies. This network, in spite of the AT&T big shots’ resentment, was developed and linked at first nine universities with some of their researchers using it to exchange their views on…science fiction. To the military establishment’s horror, the message exchange coverage expanded and as time went by, the Pentagon had to set up their own network called DARPANET, leaving thus ARPANET in the hands of the academic community who, in their turn distributed the ARPANET to the rest of the world, and what was initially meant to be an armed forces network was turned into a scientific one and later on into a network belonging to all of us…

A COMMENT

The way history is made is really amazing. Small details pile up like the flying course of a butterfly in China that would start up a storm in New York. Today, no one can question the fact that even the plan of the building where the Internet was designed, played an important role in the story. The mentality lying behind the random routes leading in fortuitous encounters amongst least acquainted people had one and only goal: the production of specialized research. This is how the Internet operates nowadays. Every message sent, every image or sound transmitted through the Net is disassembled to packets switched to random routes in myriads of cords to end up being assembled by the receiver.

A second element worth of attention is the fact that the informatics technology as a whole has been the outcome of war, be it either a real or a fictitious one. The first electronic computer, called ENIAC, was built at the end of World War II to facilitate anti-aircraft batteries aiming at bombers. The predecessor of the biggest network of all times was set up to confront a cold war nuclear threat. Maybe the great film director Orson Welles was right in writing: “In Borgias’ Italy, for thirty years there was war, terror, bloodshed. Yet, those long years produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland brotherly love reigned, not to mention the 500 years of democracy and peace, but what was the heritage left? The cuckoo clock.” Need has always been a schemer.

By Pashos Mandravelis.

email to P. Mandravelis



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