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Unraveling the Myths of the Internet’s Origins - Part I

There are several myths that dominate the public perception of the Internet. These myths make it hard to understand the needs and nature of the Internet and its future development. One of the most dominant myths equates the early U.S. packet switching network known as the ARPANET with the metasystem linking diverse networks that we call the Internet. One such example is demonstrated by the time line at the AT&T web site. They write:

1969 will forever be remembered as the year of the ‘Miracle of the Mets’ and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. But, as the Internet’s influence continues to grow, maybe 1969 will come to be known as the ‘Year of the Internet’ since it was in 1969 that the Internet was launched.

The ARPANET was begun in the late 1960s to explore and provide a prototype resource sharing computer communications network using packet switching technology. Packet switching technology breaks a message into small sections of data and gives each of these sections addressing information called a header. The header, together with the data, is called a “packet”. The packet switching network then routes and delivers these packets, interspersed with other packets, from other messages. After the packets reach their destination, the message is reconstructed.

In the U.S., Paul Baran, and a few years later, and unaware of Baran’s work, Donald Davies in the UK, developed similar concepts. In 1966 Davies implemented a packet switch connecting a set of host computers. In the U.S., research efforts led to a project to explore the feasibility of a packet switching network to connect dissimilar computers and dissimilar operating systems to make it possible to share computers, programs, and human resources. This research spanned the period from 1967 - 1972. By fall of 1972, however, researchers around the world had learned of the research creating the U.S. packet switching network, the ARPANET, and the research creating the British packet switching network, NPL. French researchers, for example, were studying these developments and planning to create a French packet switching network, CYCLADES. Researchers from many countries around the world attended the First International Conference on Computer Communication in Washington D.C. in October, 1972 (ICCC’72). The many papers presented describe research in networking from around the world. Also there was an actual ARPANET demonstration at the conference. Describing the impact of the demonstration, Davies writes:

The meeting at the Washington Hilton in 1972 was quite the most important and influential conference I have ever attended?.I arrived at the Hilton Hotel early to see what was happening and met an extraordinary scene. On a podium was ‘Terminal IMP’ or TIP?.joined to the existing ARPA network, surrounded by many terminal devices of all kinds….It was a complete turn-around, seemingly in one day, though in fact it was the enormous efforts of the ARPA team that achieved this demonstration and caused the revolutionary change in thinking about networks.?What happened in Washington was that people could now see these ideas in the form of practical achievements. They could get a glimpse of the intellectual impact that networks were destined to produce.
(from Donald W. Davies “Early Thoughts on Computer Communications”)

This demonstration of a working packet switching network, however, was not the Internet. Internet research began months later. The problem explored for Internet research, was what can be called the Multiple Network Problem. This problem asks: How is it possible to connect dissimilar packet switching networks and to make communication possible across the boundaries of their different technical, political and administrative characteristics? A diagram[PDF] included in a memo written by Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol, documents the interest in 1973 in this problem.

Explaining this problem at a meeting in 1974, Davies writes:

To achieve…the interconnection of packet switching systems we have to decide at what level they will interwork…. After some discussion a group including ARPA, NPL and CYCLADES is trying out a scheme of interconnection based on…an agreed protocol for message transport.
(from Donald Davies, “The Future of Computer Networks”, IIASA Conference on Computer Communications Networks, October 21-25, 1974, p. 36)

It is this problem, the problem of how to connect dissimilar packet switching networks, like the ARPANET, NPL and CYCLADES, that is the problem solved by the research to create a protocol to make internetworking possible. This research is the research that created and implemented the TCP/IP protocol. This research was an international effort involving researchers from different countries along with U.S. researchers.

Thus the myth that equates the ARPANET with the Internet is a myth that also replaces the internetworking communication made possible by the Internet with communication in a single network. It is important to understand that the development of the TCP/IP protocol, not the development of packet switching, is the essential aspect of the Internet’s development.

This recognition raises questions like: How was TCP/IP developed? Who were the researchers participating in this achievement? Are there lessons from the development of the TCP/IP protocol that can be helpful in the continued development of the Internet? These are but some of the questions to be explored to understand the nature of the Internet and to help to contribute to its continuing development.

By Ronda Hauben, Author & Researcher

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