Magazine article Online

The Internet, ARPANet, and Consumer Online

Magazine article Online

The Internet, ARPANet, and Consumer Online

Article excerpt

Quite a few people think the Internet came along sometime around 1990, with the Web hot on its heels. That's a natural assumption, since most people didn't have personal computers until the 1990s.

In truth, the Internet goes back a lot further than that. Just how far back depends on what you're talking about. If you want to discuss the very first communications between two computers, you'll have to go back to the 1950s. Multiple computers communicating from several locations around the country? That would be ARPAnet, the government-sponsored research program that most histories peg as the beginning of the Internet. But, as with earlier computer-connection experiments, ARPAnet (and its military counterpart, DARPAnet) was little more than barebones technology development. It would be equally valid to say that the Internet began with the telephone--or the telegraph.

Besides, ARPAnet had "FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY" stamped all over it; the public was not welcome.

The very first commercial online services designed for access by anyone with a computer terminal (remember that the personal computer hadn't yet been invented) came along in the early 1970s, but they were information retrieval services for businesses and information professionals. These services--Lockheed's DIALOG, The New York Times Information Bank, Dow Jones News/Retrieval, SDC's ORBIT, and others--cost as much as $5 per minute and offered none of the frills--email, games, chatting, downloads, or interaction--that today's Internet searcher takes for granted. They were state-of-the-art at the time, but they look extremely primitive by modern standards.

The real Internet, the public Internet we use today, is firmly rooted in 1978, when some very different entrepreneurs decided that the time had come to bring personal computer users together online.


A recent engineering graduate of the University of Arizona, 25-year-old Jeff Wilkins returned home to Columbus, Ohio, in 1969 to work for his father-in-law, Harry Gard St., who ran a successful insurance company called Golden United Life Insurance. Like many large enterprises in the 1960s, Golden United used computers for tracking finances, making business projections, and general number crunching. But the insurance company did not own a computer, since computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and few organizations had enough data processing needs to justify buying one. Most bought time on computers owned by companies that specialized in providing remote computer services in an arrangement called "timesharing."

Wilkins had accumulated some experience with a mainframe computer at the University of Arizona's Analog Hybrid Computer Lab (AHCL) and was very familiar with timesharing. He and fellow AHCL students Alexander "Sandy" Trevor and John Goltz discussed starting a timesharing service to be based on a DEC PDP-15 computer, the same model owned by AHCL. Wilkins decided that his father-in-law's business could benefit greatly from buying its own computer and getting into the timesharing business. It would eliminate an expense and add a potential profit center. They talked Golden United's board of directors into letting them set up the timesharing service, which they named Compu-Serv Networks, Inc. Goltz, who would serve as the first president, talked the company into buying a more powerful (and expensive) system: a DEC PDP-10.

Compu-Serv built its own data network based on leased lines provided by AT&T. The company's engineers developed proprietary network hardware and software that outperformed PSNs and AT&T's own networks. This rankled AT&T managers, who did not like the idea of Compu-Serv besting its technology.

Compu-Serv was as innovative in creating products as it was in setting up its hardware and network. The traditional timesharing company's role had been to give clients basic access to computers, leaving it up to them to provide their own software. …

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