A Brief History of the Internet–B.C. (Before Commercialism)

How the Internet developed from its early beginnings as a research tool into the fastest growing marketing environment in the world.

The roots of the Internet go back to the 1960s and the height of the Cold War. The U.S. military, in preparation for a possible nuclear war, sought a means to ensure communication in the event of an enemy missile attack. The network would need to be able to withstand large scale destruction, yet deliver uninterrupted service.

At the time, a direct hit on a central point would disable the entire network. The Rand Corporation suggested building a network without a central control point so the system would not be vulnerable to a direct hit on a single location.

To accommodate this requirement, a new kind of network was devised. A special communication standard, called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), was designed to direct the flow of data between computers on the network and around possibly damaged sections. Thus, TCP/IP increased the survivability and reliability of the network, even in the case of war.

In 1969, a group of Department of Defense researchers working for the Advanced Research Projects Agency linked computers at UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, the University of Utah, and the University of California at Santa Barbara to create the network. The message, “Are you receiving this?” was successfully sent from UCLA across the network to the other computers. The non-centralized network was born and dubbed ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network).

At first, military researchers used ARPANET to discuss government projects sending electronic messages (e-mail) across the network. However, these researchers soon discovered that e-mail was a very convenient way to discuss topics far outside even the most liberal interpretations of research-related activities. They created e-mail programs that automatically sent the same message to everyone on a list. E-mail lists enabled entire groups of like-minded researchers to share their interests.

E-mail sends a message from one computer to one or many other computers. The message is typed, sent almost instantaneously, and read the next time the recipient checks messages. Text from an e-mail can be pasted into a word processor, sent on to other recipients, or simply read and thrown away.

The original ARPANET community grew from 4 institutions in 1969 to more than 50 universities and military agencies by 1972. The ability of ARPANET users to interact and share the latest information was driving ever-greater use of the network. Non-military scientists were pressuring for access to the network too but ARPANET’s acceptable use policyÑthe evolving set of rules about who could and could not use the NetÑprohibited those outside the military establishment from using it. So, in 1983, ARPANET split into two networks; one to handle all scientific traffic and another, MILNET, just to carry military information.

In the early 1970s, a group of programmers at the University of California (including Bill Joy, who later co-founded Sun Microsystems) created an operating system called Berkeley UNIX, with built-in TCP/IP networking. (An operating system is the master control program than enables a computer to perform basic processing and communicate with peripherals like monitors, printers, and keyboards.)

Berkeley UNIX suddenly made it possible for computers around the world to exchange information easily. Large networks, like BITNET, sprang up to serve scholarly and academic uses outside of just the traditional sciences.

These large networks, along with many small local networks, were woven and interconnected using Berkeley UNIX into a network of networks. Early in the 1980s, this collection of networks was called the ARPA Internet, but it eventually became known as just the Internet.

In the 1986, the National Science Foundation established the NSFNET to link supercomputers at high speed. NSFNET became the backbone (the major infrastructure) of the Internet, offering transmission speeds of a million bits-per-second (bps). The acceptable use policy was further expanded to include almost everything except commercial activity.

Then, in 1991, Congress passed the U.S. High Performance Computing Act to establish the National Research and Education Network (NREN). The goals of NREN were to establish high-speed, high-capacity research and education networks, and to encourage a commercial presence on the Internet. Suddenly, commercial activity was permissible on the Net, and “com” domain names began to spring up.

Meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee, a physics researcher at the CERN lab in Switzerland, had been playing with hypertext since 1980. In 1990, he invented the World Wide Web, and in 1991 released the first Web browser.

Within just a few years, commercial activity began to dominate the InternetÑand especially the hyperlinked, graphics-rich Web. And the way business is conducted was forever altered.

In 1995, the federal government turned control of the Internet over to the private sector. The acceptable use policy was replaced by a Wild-West frontier atmosphere, where the old rules rapidly eroded, and all sorts of experimentation took place. Some of these were accepted by the Net community, while others failed. Suddenly, business cards sprouted e-mail addresses, and millions of companies were scrambling to participate in the Web. Until the government allowed private industry inside the gates, the tiny minority in cyberspace was restricted to the fringes: a handful of online services and a few hundred special-interest BBS (Bulletin Board System) networks with a handful of members apiece. While a number of early entrepreneurs recognized the marketing possibilities in these small networks, cyberspace really only took off when commercial restrictions were liftedÑand anyone could get an Internet account. By the end of 1995, business had staked out its territory: the World Wide Web was already established as the Supermarket of Cyberspace.

Shel Horowitz, author of Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring and The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant’s Pocketbook, is Webmaster of Frugal Fun and editor of Down to Business. He is available for marketing and informational writing projects.