E-SPEAIT T2 Internet History

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From ARPAnet to Facebook: The Story of Cyberspace

For starters

If we ask a random person about Internet, chances are that his/her reply would be in the vein of "a cool thing for hanging around with friends, reading news and downloading stuff - it was built sometime around 1990 or so". Somebody would probably mention just the F-word (Facebook, that is...).

But Internet is older, larger, and more colourful and controversial than just that. It is a communication channel, a mass medium, a fantasy world and a free-for-all arena. As any powerful tool, it can be used for good and evil alike - as we can see later, it can help people in sometimes surprising ways, yet give ground to nasty amounts of superficiality, irresponsibility and cruelty.

The term 'cyberspace' is actually older than Internet, as it was used by two Danish artists already in the 1960s[1]. The current meaning entered the public knowledge through the writings of William Gibson (most famously used in Neuromancer). While the concept is actually wider than just Internet, it is often used for Internet - especially to stress the social aspect rather than technical. Today's Internet is more and more defined as a social space.

Main services

Starting with the most obvious that is often mistaken for 'Internet' by commoners - the World Wide Web or WWW, the hypertext network. What started out as a plain text system suitable for connecting research documents, gradually added new possibilities in graphics and multimedia, largely taking over many roles of previously used services (e.g. as a communication channel - blogs, wikis and social networking sites are technically all just web pages. Or information search - old services like Archie or Gopher were gradually replaced by Google and others). As the backbone of today's information society, Web interfaces can be used to set up home electronics, do car diagnostics or sell stock options.

Then there is the real oldtimer - E-mail. Born half by accident as a side product of data transfer and remote login, it was the main service of Internet for a long time and has not given up much of that - an e-mail address on a calling card is as self-explanatory as a phone number. In addition, it gave rise to early Internet communities in the form of mailing lists, and later, Usenet.

Sometimes people ask "But how was stuff downloaded before the Web?". Using FTP, of course. While it is integrated with Web interfaces in many modern systems, it is still in use as a separate service as well - albeit mostly in its newer, more secure forms (SFTP, FTPS). In addition, P2P services can also considered descendants of FTP.

Remote access protocols like Telnet or rlogin also date back to the era of room-sized computers - computers were scarce and expensive, many facilities had to use more powerful machines remotely over distance. With the advent of PCs, Telnet allowed access to large Unix machines from a home PC, many applications that nowadays use the Web were initially available over Telnet (e.g. search engines). Telnet was also the way to log into early chatrooms, talkers and MUDs. Just like FTP, more secure alternatives like SSH have largely replaced original Telnet by now.

Usenet was the pre-web standard of online discussions - for a time, there was a newsgroup for practically everything and while most of them still exist, they have been pushed aside by newer web-based alternatives. Today, the real wealth of Usenet lies in its archives that offer valuable insight into the pre-web era of Internet (for example, the message of Tim Berners-Lee announcing his novel hypertext system[2] or of Linus Torvalds announcing Linux[3] both appeared first on Usenet).

Finally, there was a number of services allowing real-time communication between users. From talk (an utility in Unix that allowed two users to chat) to IRC to various "messengers" (ICQ, AIM, MSN...) to Skype to today's web-based chatrooms.


Various authors count different points in history as the beginning of Internet. Some (like Gregory R. Gromov[4]) consider the Atlantic cable of 1866 as the starting point (the first attempt was actually made already in 1858, but it worked just for a couple of days - the cables from 1866 were in use for more than 100 years). Others like Moschovitis et al[5] mention U.S. radio enthusiasts from WWI (likely the first use of 'hacker' in technological context, plus the U.S. Radio Act from 1927, the ancestor of today's data protection laws, was partially motivated by the need to get the rules in place). Yet others start the history from the Soviets launching Sputnik 1 in 1957 that raised a lot of alarm in the U.S. and among other countermeasures, greatly boosted defense-oriented research that led to the development of first packet switching networks.

Some other waypoints include

  • 1938 - the first 'media bubble' when New York aired one of the first audio plays, Herbert G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, performed by the suggestive voice of Orson Welles. The description of Martians invading New York was so vivid that the resulting panic was overwhelming and some people were narrowly kept away from killing themselves[6]. While commercial broadcasting was spreading rapidly in the U.S., there was but little regulation.
  • 1945 - Vannevar Bush writes an article titled As We May Think, suggesting Memex, a hypertext system using microfilm.[7]
  • 1947 - Grace Murray Hopper examined a malfunctioning Mark II computer and discovered a moth that had been stuck and caused the problem. The culprit was taped into the logbook accompanied by the description "The first actual case of a bug being found", and the terms of 'bug', 'debug' and 'debugger' got their start.[8]
  • 1948 - Norbert Wiener publishes Cybernetics, the book that founded a new discipline of the same name.
  • 1956 - John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky chair the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence where the exponential development of technology was first proposed (also, the term 'artificial intelligence' was coined around the same time).[9]
  • 1960 - J.C.R. Licklider publishes a paper titled Man-Computer Symbiosis that predicted many things visible in today's information society.[10]
  • 1962 - Douglas Engelbart publishes Augmenting Human Intelligence: A Conceptual Framework.[11] - Engelbart (who is also credited as the inventor of computer mouse and graphical user interface) was among the first pioneers who saw computers more than just powerful calculators.

Early days

Most authors are in agreement that the actual history of Internet started after the Soviets launching Sputnik 1 which resulted in significant boost to defense-oriented research in the US. The National Defense Education Act was a state-financed student loan programme to train scientists for the military - in 1959 the total was USD 5 billion, rising to 13 billion by 1964. Among the organizations funded from the programme was also the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA; in 1972, the 'Defense' was added to the title, making the acronym DARPA) that was tasked to find a counter to a possible attack from space. To achieve that, they started to research a possible all-encompassing defense network that was to keep working 'half dead', after the Soviet attack (some sources contest it, but a majority seems to agree).

The initial theory was formulated by Leonhard Kleinrock in MIT in 1961 and practical implementation proposed by Paul Baran in 1964. The main idea was to divide traffic into small chunks (called packets) that would be sent over the network independently from each other. The first network connected four computers located in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Stanford and Utah - the network was later named ARPAnet. The first attempts were rocky at best - there is a well-known description of how 'login' was sent letter by letter over the network and crashed the system at 'g'.[12]

(A side note: while the early days of Internet included famous professors and researchers, the main impetus came from the practical implementors - young, passionate and geeky enthusiasts. In addition to the technology, these people also founded the free-minded, decidedly anti-authoritarian cyberculture - all this taking place during the 'Hippie age' likely played a role too.)

A major challenge was to find a way for different computer types to interact over the network. A set of protocols was created that used layered approach with lower layers dealing with physical connection and networking, upper ones with various applications. The Transmission Control Program (later renamed to Transmission Control Protocol or TCP) was created in 1974 followed in 1978 by Internet Protocol, forming the foundation of Internet, the Internet protocol suite or TCP/IP.

In 1969-70, two of the major tools are born, the Unix operating system and C programming language. The Alohanet in Hawaii, built in 1970, became one of the first wireless networks. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson succeeds in sending a text message from one computer to another, later also writing a basic software for sending e-mail. The @-sign comes to use, likely from teletype (but it had been used earlier on some ordinary typewriters). In the University of Illinois, Michael S. Hart starts Project Gutenberg, the first digital library (for a long time, it was just a collection of electronic texts, but with the advent of tablet computers, it greatly increased its importance as a source of free e-books). In 1972, the first long-distance text chat took place between ELIZA and PARRY (it was already described in the previous topic). The Telnet protocol for remote connections is developed in the same year.

In 1973, the network expanded to the UK and Norway (thus, the term 'Internet' first appears). The doctoral thesis of Bob Metcalfe described the networks later known as Ethernet. The first specification of FTP is published. At UIUC, software called Notes is added to the PLATO system, allowing posting texts online - this is considered a forefather of various online systems.Bob Metcalfe publishes RFC 602 titled "The Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney with Care", that was the first public treatise on dangers coming from weak passwords[13] (unfortunately, people have not grown any wiser since).

In 1975, first mailing lists were created and the initial version of the Jargon File is published. In January 1975 the Altair 8800, one of the first microcomputers targetting hobbyists, was featured in the Popular Electronics magazine - this is noteworthy also for coming with the first Microsoft product in history, the Altair BASIC. 1978 Minitel, a video terminal system that became hugely popular in France (so much that some authors suggest it hindering the initial spread of Internet proper in the country), was launched in Brittany.

These times also brought two new phenomena:

  • The Vietnam War and President Nixon's Watergate scandal disillusioned many Americans - it has been suggested that they also motivated first known incidents of computer crime.
  • While the Altair BASIC was considered a good piece of software, it was also the first that expected payment for every copy. A lot of people did not comply - so proprietary software and license violations (sometimes called 'piracy') were born together.

In 1978, the first BBS - unsurprisingly named CBBS or Computerized Bulletin Board System - was opened in Chicago by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess. A year later, Usenet was born and the first MUD opened in the Essex University (the exact time differs by authors, different sources suggest 1978-80). Around the same time, probably the first commercial spam e-mail was sent by a DEC employee.

Another well-known phenomenon was born around that time - emoticons a.k.a. smileys. There are two contenders - opinions differ whether it was Kevin Mackenzie in 1979[14] or Scott Fahlman in 1982 to use them for the first time.

Let there be Internet

In 1982, the TCP/IP was officially designated as the core protocol of ARPAnet and Internet is defined in its today's sense of 'network of networks'. UK and Norway leave ARPAnet and replace the cables with a satellite connection.

In 1983, Fidonet was founded - for a time, it was also popular in Estonia due to local phone calls being free and 'real' Internet hard to reach (during the last years of Soviet rule). Ethernet-based local networks flourish, helping also Internet to grow.

By 1985, Internet had stabilized with four main services in E-mail, Telnet, FTP and Usenet, with IRC added in 1988. In 1989, CERN in Switzerland got connected to the Internet. Timothy Berners-Lee, a British researcher, had studied non-linear presentation of text since mid-80s, and submitted a research proposal for it in March 1989. His second attempt in 1990 was successful and by 1992, his hypertext method and browser was widely used in research documentation.[15]. As it was available from the CERN FTP archive, it spread quickly (note: Berners-Lee chose to publish his system as public domain).

The "Web explosion" in early 90-s happened due to a number of emerging technologies:

  • PC-compatible computers had become "the personal computer", ensuring a common hardware platform - at first for clients, but later serving also as inexpensive simple server machines.
  • Linux, starting in 1991, offered a free (in both senses) system software (especially when the Apache web server was developed a bit later).
  • MS Windows became the widely used client platform for common users.
  • NCSA Mosaic, the first web browser that developed a wider user base.

A side note: there was an earlier hypertext system developed by the University of Minnesota called [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gopher_%28protocol%29 Gopher} that offered similar user experience (although without graphics). However, it was a poster case of short-sighted business decisions - while Berners-Lee opted for public domain, the developers of Gopher attempted to control and license it for profit (in hindsight, also at the worst possible moment with a strong competitor catching up - when it was re-licensed under the free GNU GPL in 2000 it was too late by far). Today, people behind Gopher are largely forgotten, while Berners-Lee is a respected inventor of the Web (and most likely also well-off financially).

Marc Andreessen, a former employee of NCSA, founded Netscape Communications in 1994. The same year, Brian Pinkerton presented a new kind of software called https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WebCrawler WebCrawler], to find information from the rapidly growing Web - the topic of his thesis also becomes the first search engine. Also around the same time, Stanford students David Filo and Jerry Yang started to turn their personal collection of web links into a portal named Yahoo!.

As the explosive growth called for better coordination, organizations like InterNIC (1993; in 1998, the ICANN took the duties over) and W3C (1994) were founded. In 1995, several crucial components of the web infrastructure were born - Apache, Java, PHP and MySQL.


While Internet had enjoyed a time of relatively independent development as a haven of geeks, its mainstreaming also brought along increasing attempts of 'getting things under control' by the U.S. government. The first serious try of Internet censorship, the Communications Decency Act of 1995/96 caused a major backlash and was swamped in legal problems. The next, Child Online Protection Act was challenged immediately and after a long fight at court was shut down in 2009. However, the third attempt in [Children's Internet Protection Act] passed and mandated censorship in all K-12 educational facilities and libraries.

Increased censorship coupled with deepening commercialization caused the former lyricist of the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow to write and publish A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Barlow was also a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a long-time promoter of freedom of expression and press in the U.S.

It is interesting to note that for awhile, Microsoft was rather dismissive towards Internet, rather promoting 'their own thing' Microsoft Network (MSN). It changed when they could not get Netscape to divide the market[16]) - the 'Tidal Wave' memo[17] can be considered the start of the 'browser wars' - Microsoft went on to defeat Netscape, being afterwards seriously challenged by new contenders like Mozilla and Google in turn.

Some more keywords from the turn of the century:

  • the dotcom boom and strong wave of commercialization
  • proliferation of multimedia (RealAudio, Flash, MP3...) allowed by faster connections
  • free and open-source software, resurrection of the academic hacker culture of the 70s
  • various network communities paving way to modern social media - in some places, there was the talker and MUD boom in late 90s, later giving way to 'messengers' (ICQ, AIM, MSN/Live Messenger etc) which in turn were shadowed by the first social networking sites (Friendster, MySpace, Orkut and later Facebook).
  • emergence of a wide variety of social software - Wikipedia 2001, Flickr 2004, YouTube 2005 etc, plus the 'everyman's writing' boom - blogs, fan fiction, also microblogging (Twitter and others). More recent additions include Reddit, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat and many others. 4chan deserves a separate notion - while this 'discussion board' site from 2003 contains many legitimate and civilized discussions on various topics, its 'Random' board is known as the birthplace of Anonymous (due to everyone on the board labelled as such) and a major source of online hazing, cyberbullying and -distortion (including swatting).

In the new century:

  • social media has obtained strong influence on society (e.g. the Arab Spring and various other conflicts, Twitter as a politician's tool, Facebook as a channel for nearly everything).
  • switching to the next version of Internet Protocol (IPv6) has been going on for awhile.
  • the Web moving towards standardizing on HTML5 instead of former proprietary multimedia protocols (Flash, Silverlight).
  • mobile devices are on the way to becoming the main tools for connecting to Internet (especially in developing countries).
  • rapid evolution of educational technology and online learning systems (including the recent boom of MOOCs).
  • there has been a shift towards greater device agnosticism, promoted by various things like BYOD, responsive web design etc.
  • Internet has become a part of the battlefield - both for cyberwars between countries and national/international cybercrime. This has in turn led to the emergence of cybersecurity as a central discipline.

Conclusion - and a word of warning

For us, the last point above is perhaps the biggest food for thought. In early days of computing there was a 'priesthood' of knowledgeable users who were the only ones having access to the computers. Then, the PC with its ubiquity came nearer to ordinary people. Yet recently, the approach has regrettably shifted again - and one of the main reasons is money. Ignorant people are the best clients - so instead of teaching them how to take care of one's computer, it is much easier (and more profitable) to sell them the service. On the contrary, a knowledgeable user would become a conscious customer and could possibly opt for a competing offer instead.

Unfortunately, the dumbing-down tendency is seen in hardware (non-swappable parts like memory chips), software (see the example below) and services (EULAs and other service contracts are worth reading). In security, the approach is known as 'security through obscurity'. A good example is upgrading the system - when earlier versions of Windows had countless problems with out-of-date systems, Microsoft "solved" it with Windows 10, making updates automatic. What, when and why happens in a user's computer is still a mystery, and should anything fail, the user is even more helpless. So mechanical spoon-feeding is not a solution.

So the next big challenge of the Cyberspace would probably be: how to turn the subjects into citizens (or would we end up in the Matrix...?).


For further reading

  • DEAR, B. The Friendly Orange Glowː The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture. Pantheon Books 2017.
  • MOSCHOVITIS C. et al. History of the Internet: A Chronology, 1843 to the Present. ABC-CLIO 1999.
  • TURNER, F. From Counterculture to Cybercultureː Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. The University of Chicago Press 2006.
  • https://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/

Study & Write

Pick two technologies/practices/phenomena from the earlier history of the Internet (before the Web, or pre-1991 period) - one which has become obsolete and been replaced by more modern things, and another which survives to this day. Describe them in a blog post.

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The content of this course is distributed under the Creative Commons Attibution-ShareAlike 3.0 Estonian license (English: CC Attribution-ShareAlike, or CC BY-SA) or any newer version of the license.