“The process of technological development is like building a cathedral,” according to Paul Baran, who played a major role as an architect and builder of the internet. “New people add stones to the foundation laid by others.” Who built the internet? Baran believed that it was a joint effort over time. Not everyone is so humble.
TCP/IP Is the Key
“I happen to feel that TCP and IP are good protocols, and certainly much better than what we are using now.” These were the words of Mike Muuss, research computer scientist at the U.S. Army Ballistics Research Laboratory (BRL), which he recorded in the “TCP/IP Digest” on the ARPANET mailing list. A Department of Defense (DoD) memorandum declared the adoption of TCP/IP as mandatory in March 1982. It would provide for “host-to-host connectivity across network or subnetwork boundaries.” Muuss started the TCP/IP Digest by announcing, “I am looking for implementations of TCP/IP for UNIX systems, including an interface for an IMP.”
The U.S. Military decision was important to the development of the modern internet. ARPANET engineers would perform a cutover from Network Control Protocol (NCP) to TCP/IP on January 1, 1983. The history of the Internet rests upon the foundations of the TCP/IP suite. The very definition of the internet itself is dependent upon it. The story of the development of the technology and the key milestones in its history are well established in Techopedia’s tutorial “History of the Internet” and our “Timeline of the Development of the Internet and World Wide Web.” Many of the architects and builders themselves told their own version in the Internet Society’s Brief History of the Internet.
Architects and Builders
The authors of the official history are a “who’s who” of internet founders. Among them are Vinton G. Cerf, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Jon Postel and Larry G. Roberts. Other important figures in the building of the internet cathedral are J.C.R. Licklider, Paul Baran, Steve Crocker, Tim Berners-Lee, and yes, Sen. Al Gore. The history of the internet is as much about personalities as it is about technologies.
An important position in the early days of network development was the director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), originally called Command and Control Research, at ARPA. The first man to hold the position was J.C.R. Licklider. He was a trained psychologist and computer scientist who wrote the influential paper on interactive computing called “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” He also wrote a report called “Libraries of the Future,” in which he imagined being able to retrieve thousands of documents through “on-line man-computer interaction,” and anticipated text-crawling search engines decades before their invention. He even postulated an “Intergalactic Computer Network.” His role, as Walter Isaacson put it in “The Innovators,” was “to study how interactive computers could help facilitate the flow of information.” (See my article 7 Computing Manifestos That Changed the World to learn more.)
Bob Taylor and Larry Roberts
It was groundbreaking work. Licklider’s influence would be felt throughout the development of the internet. Ivan Sutherland took his place at IPTO, and Bob Taylor became Sutherland’s assistant. Taylor said of Licklider: “He was really the father of it all.” Larry Roberts recalled: “Licklider inspired me with his vision of linking computers into a network, and I decided that would be my work.” Taylor and Roberts would work together to launch ARPANET.
The network concept may have come from Licklider, but it was up to Taylor and Roberts to work out the details. The result was a plan to commission four ARPANET nodes that would be built by Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, the Cambridge firm where Licklider had worked. The devices would be called Interface Message Processors (IMPs). The first network message between two nodes were the letters “lo” – the connection failed before the word “login” could be sent.
Paul Baran, Leonard Kleinrock, Donald Davies and Roger Scantlebury
The foundations for the internet cathedral were being laid. Now it was Paul Baran’s turn to lay some stones. Baran’s contribution was a technology called packet switching. But it was not his alone. Leonard Kleinrock of MIT had written a paper and published a book on the subject, and Donald Davies and Roger Scantlebury in the UK were also working on a packet network concept. Baran believed that the network should be decentralized and distributed. “There is no central control,” he explained. “A simple local routing policy is performed at each node.” Kleinrock caused a stir when he claimed to be the sole inventor of packet switching. History seems to show that the credit should be shared with others.
Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn
Now we come to the central focus of internet technology: TCP/IP. The Federal Networking Council (FNC) recognized its importance when it presented the official definition of the internet in 1995. There would be no internet – at least not as we know it – without the contributions of Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. “How are we going to hook these different kinds of packet-nets to each other?” Kahn asked. In 1974, they published a paper called “A Protocol for Packet Network Interconnection.” And with the 1983 node migration from the Network Control Protocol to TCP/IP, the ARPANET became the internet. The Internet Society document tells us some of the ground rules for the new “network of networks”:
- Each distinct network would have to stand on its own.
- Communications would be on a best effort basis.
- Black boxes (later called gateways and routers) would be used to connect the networks.
- There would be no global control at the operations level.
Tim Berners-Lee and Steve Crocker
In the early days of networking, applications like email and FTP were the most common. Tim Berners-Lee’s creation and distribution of HTML and the World Wide Web contributed to exponential growth in internet usage. Internet protocols themselves were developed and documented in the Request for Comment (RFC) system created by Steve Crocker and curated by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The standards body IETF now facilitates working groups and maintains the Official Internet Protocol Standards. Today thousands of engineers and technical professionals participate in their development. Jake Feinler wrote in the commemorative RFC 2555 that the RFC system was set up so that “anyone with something to contribute could come to the party.”
So who built the internet cathedral? Who created the internet? The High Performance Computing Act of 1991, created and introduced by Sen. Al Gore, paved the way for its development. Forward-thinking computer pioneers like J.C.R. Licklider introduced the concepts for its creation. Developers like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn made its implementation possible. But it is clear that no single person is responsible for the invention and development of the vast technological environment called the internet. The foundations of the cathedral were laid long ago. But it is not finished yet.