In its very early days, the internet was founded as a US military project, with the goal of figuring out a more resilient approach to communication.
This weekend, to celebrate Memorial Day, we look back at some of internet pioneers who worked on this amazing effort but have since passed away. They may not have fallen in the course of a military conflict but their efforts to improve military communication during the cold war brought us an infrastructure for the ages.
During World War II, Vannevar Bush was appointed by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, an organization that started fostering a relationship between the US federal government, the American scientific community and businesses. The result of that effort was the eventual creation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, where more long ranging ideas would be fostered.
But Bush was not only a great administrator; he was also one of the top thinkers of his times and a paper he public in the July 1945 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “As We May Think” envisioned a world where different systems would store and interlink all books, records, and communication. In doing so, Bush essentially invented the concept of hypertext, which you use every day when you click on a web link.
Licklider was initially trained as a psychologist and mathematics but became interested in computer in the early 1950s, when he worked on a cold war era project to create computer-aided air defense systems while at MIT. Working with the likes of Vannevar Bush, Licklider started pushing the idea that computers should be used as communication devices, formulating the earliest ideas of a global computer network when, in the early 1960s, he wrote a series of memos talking about an “Intergalactic Computer Network”. Most of these ideas, which range from things as simple as connecting 2 computers to more substantial concepts like the idea to run applications over “the cloud”, have come to be implemented into what we now know as the modern internet.
In 1959, Paul Baran was given what seemed like an impossible tasks: designing a system of communication that could survive and maintain communication between different end points even in the face of a nuclear attack on major communication centers. At the time, the US military communication was relying on a model that could be destroyed with a few strategically placed nuclear devices. Considering an escalation in nuclear device stockpiling by the US and USSR, this represented a major point of concern. So Baran advanced the idea of creating a distributed network, where each point would be able to interconnect in a web of communication and traffic would be able to find its way from one end of the network to another, routing around any areas that was damaged. While not created specifically to build an internet, the model was eventually adapted and turned into the internet. Most telecommunication experts at the time scoffed at such an approach, saying that Baran did not understand how voice communication worked.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the atlantic, Donald Davies, who had studied under Alan Turing, saw a problem with the high cost that would incur if computers stayed connected all the time via telephone lines. To solve it, if figured he would create a model where small bits of information would be sent in a “packet” to the other side and connections would be broken until a response was needed.
Independently, the two of them had created similar approaches to network communication, building what is now know as the first packet-switching networks. This approach now underlies most communication over the internet. In 1969, when DARPA started building out the Arpanet (the grandfather of what we know as the internet today), they leaned heavily on Baran and Davies’ research as conceptual models to be used.
One of the most amazing thing about the internet is that its foundation rests on a set of documents that are freely shared to ensure the maximum amount of open connectivity between all participants. Those documents are called RFCs (which stands for Request for Comments) and from the inception of the internet until his death in 1998, Postel was the main RFC editor, helping information move from draft mode to fully documented protocols. By writing or editing many of the most important standards for the net, Postel helped define the basic protocols of the network, while at the same-time establishing a standardized approach to bringing any new protocol up to be shared.
Postel was also the initial administrator of the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which oversees allocation of internet addresses and the managed of domain names, essentially managing who and how internet names were distributed.
All the above activities were done as a volunteer, making Postel probably one of the most active volunteer on the internet.
There are many others who participated in the creation of the internet and more names are being added on a daily basis. The livings can continue to write their history but today, we honor those who have passed on. The people above made reading this possible and did so within the context of a military conflict known as the cold war. Today, we honor their spirit and can reflect on the irony that conflict can sometimes brings amazing human advances.
© Tristan Louis 1994-present Some rights reserved.