The Origins of the Internet - A Research Effort in the Department of Defense's Advanced Projects Research Agency Led to Many of the Innovations That Power Today's Internet

By Jackson, Charles L. | The World and I, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Origins of the Internet - A Research Effort in the Department of Defense's Advanced Projects Research Agency Led to Many of the Innovations That Power Today's Internet


Jackson, Charles L., The World and I


Bill Gates, speaking of computers and the Internet, has declared, "We're only at the beginning of what the computer can do to change our lives. The best is yet to come." The Internet has quickly become omnipresent. Even teenagers can remember when there were no ads on TV containing tags such as www.hertz.com.

Now, about half of U.S. households have access to the Internet, and almost all businesses connect to it. This apparent overnight success was actually four decades in the making and built on a series of developments.

Today's Internet

The Internet is an interconnected set of computer networks. Most people are familiar with two of its uses: E-mail and Web browsing. But the Internet can carry almost any type of communications, including radio programs, telephone calls, video clips, video game connections, and text chat (instant messaging).

Most offices and a few households have local computer networks that allow users to share expensive equipment, like color printers, and send intraoffice (and intrafamily) E-mail. The interconnection of many such networks brought the Internet into being.

Thus, a student at Tulane can E-mail a friend at UCLA or an engineer at IBM can download a technical reference from Intel. For computers that are not connected to a local network, a whole industry permits Internet use via dial-up telephone connections.

Many people, including scientists and politicians, now regard the Internet as essential. "Everybody ought to have access to the Internet," said President Clinton in a speech to high school students in Washington, D.C. "Everybody ought to know how to use it, and then we ought to make it possible for people to make the maximum use of it." Today, more than 100 million computers are connected to the Internet, up from fewer than one million 10 years ago. The rapid growth hides the fact that the Internet developed from modest research projects that began over 30 years ago.

Beginnings

The Internet depends on three separate developments: the evolution of networking technology, the widespread use of modern computers in offices and homes, and a reliable, high-capacity telecommunications system. A research effort in the Department of Defense's Advanced Projects Research Agency (known over the years as ARPA or DARPA) led to many of the key networking innovations that power today's Internet.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the need for ARPA after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. The organization united some of America's most brilliant people, who developed the first successful U.S. satellite after 18 months of effort. Several years later, ARPA began to focus on computer networking and communications technology. Thus President Eisenhower supported the foundation of both the interstate highway system and the information superhighway.

ARPA funded a series of academic research projects on networking computers. These projects led to an early computer network, called ARPANET, which morphed into the Internet when a military subnet split off from the more academic ARPANET in the early 1980s. A key component of the Internet is a set of networking rules or standards (also called protocols) known as TCP/IP, short for transmission control protocol/Internet protocol. These rules were defined in the 1970s and became operational in the 1980s. They have been added to and refined, but their original design still governs the heart of the Internet.

ARPANET stimulated the academic research community, particularly researchers in computer science. They quickly adopted E-mail and experimented with transferring files and documents within the research community. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized the benefits of computer networking for the academic world and perceived a great research opportunity as well.

The NSF funded academic networking for several years, for a total expenditure of about $200 million.

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