Is one invention to thank for all of today’s technology?
It’s well known that Sir Tim Berners-Lee devised the concept of the World Wide Web while working at CERN in Switzerland. What’s less well known is the fact that Sir Tim was effectively refining a concept that had existed since the 1960s, whereby computers were linked to each other through a network of secure connections.
At the height of the Cold War, the American military were keen to ensure that their strategic and missile bases could remain in contact with each other even if conventional circuit-based communications channels were lost. This principle was first floated in 1963 as the boldly titled Intergalactic Computer Network, and a team of academics and graduates spent six years developing a workable solution. In the process, they created the first example of a wide area packet switching network – connecting remote computers through a transmission control protocol that dispatched packets of data before reassembling them at their destination.
The rather clumsy official title of Advanced Research Projects Agency Network was abbreviated to ARPANET, and the first one-word message was sent in late 1969 across a network of four university computers between California and Utah. This was the second attempt to send the word “login”, as the first attempt crashed after two letters. Decades later, the experience of losing a connection midway through a file transfer would become all too familiar to many dial-up internet users.
As the Cold War progressed, ARPANET expanded to dozens of locations across America. By the early 1970s, it was also connected to University College London and a Norwegian radar base. Although it was intended for military communications, there is anecdotal evidence of employees sending each other social messages in their spare time. Electronic mail was being sent and received by 1971, and swiftly became the dominant form of ARPANET communications. In an ominous glimpse of future security worries, the network was hacked in 1980 and temporarily forced offline.
By 1983, the original Network Control Program protocol was replaced by the Transmission Control Protocol that underpins today’s internet. In the same year, the Domain Name System was created to provide abbreviated suffixes to addresses such as .org. A computer company in Massachusetts registered the first domain name back in 1985, and the first commercial dial-up internet provider launched in 1989. Although the ARPANET was officially retired in 1990, it would be another year before Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed HTML and his CERN employers unveiled the World Wide Web.
Initially designed as a way to share files with people in nearby offices, the Web’s potential as a communications platform was soon identified and the technology was shared publicly without copyright or charges. The generosity of its creator has been rewarded with numerous honorary doctorates and awards (including a knighthood and the UK’s Order of Merit), while Sir Tim himself is a director of the World Wide Web Consortium that governs internet progression.
Irrespective of Sir Tim’s undoubted genius, HTML and the Web were refinements to existing concepts rather than a completely new creation. Next time you send a tweet or checkout an online order, it’s worth taking a moment to consider that this technology might never have existed without the Cold War – and a few visionary academics.
Do you think the world we know today would have been different if the ARPANET hadn’t been invented? Let us know on Twitter @WestHost, or drop a comment below.