The First Fifty Years Of The Internet

from the as-written-by-the-winners dept

Paul Kedrosky points us to an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair recounting the first fifty years of the internet’s history by assembling a bunch of the people who were involved in different stages from conception right up until today, and getting them to talk about it. As Kedrosky notes, there are a few small problems with it (most notably, it’s very much history as written by the “winners” leaving out quite a bit and perhaps “enhancing” some stories a bit), but overall it’s a fantastic and fun read full of great quotes.

The more recent stuff in the article doesn’t add much, but there’s a great discussion of the early years, where there are even a few themes that may sound familiar around here — including the idea that multiple people seem to come up with the same ideas at the same time. For example, the article notes that both Paul Baran and Donald Davies entirely independently came up with the idea of packet-switched networks, and one of Baran’s quotes in the article is:

“I get credit for a lot of things I didn’t do. I just did a little piece on packet switching and I get blamed for the whole goddamned Internet, you know? Technology reaches a certain ripeness and the pieces are available and the need is there and the economics look good — it’s going to get invented by somebody.”

It’s Stigler’s Law all over again.

Somewhat related to that is the interesting tidbit about how CERN originally wanted to patent the World Wide Web, until Tim Berners-Lee talked them out of it (as recounted by Robert Cailliau):

“At one point CERN was toying with patenting the World Wide Web. I was talking about that with Tim one day, and he looked at me, and I could see that he wasn’t enthusiastic. He said, Robert, do you want to be rich? I thought, Well, it helps, no? He apparently didn’t care about that. What he cared about was to make sure that the thing would work, that it would just be there for everybody. He convinced me of that, and then I worked for about six months, very hard with the legal service, to make sure that CERN put the whole thing in the public domain.”

Imagine how different the world would be if the Web were patented early on? It almost certainly would have massively stunted development.

Also, amusingly, from multiple people early in the piece, AT&T plays the roll of the clueless big company who wants nothing more than to kill the internet and keep its monopoly:

Paul Baran: The one hurdle packet switching faced was AT&T. They fought it tooth and nail at the beginning. They tried all sorts of things to stop it. They pretty much had a monopoly in all communications. And somebody from outside saying that there?s a better way to do it of course doesn?t make sense. They automatically assumed that we didn?t know what we were doing.

Bob Taylor: Working with AT&T would be like working with Cro-Magnon man. I asked them if they wanted to be early members so they could learn technology as we went along. They said no. I said, Well, why not? And they said, Because packet switching won’t work. They were adamant. As a result, AT&T missed out on the whole early networking experience.
Bob Kahn: Let me put it into perspective. So here we are when there are very few time-sharing systems anywhere in the world. AT&T probably said, Look, maybe we would have 50 or a hundred organizations, maybe a few hundred organizations, that could possibly partake of this in any reasonable time frame. Remember, the personal computer hadn’t been invented yet. So, you had to have these big expensive mainframes in order to do anything. They said, There’s no business there, and why should we waste our time until we can see that there’s a business opportunity?
Bob Metcalfe: Imagine a bearded grad student being handed a dozen AT&T executives, all in pin-striped suits and quite a bit older and cooler. And I’m giving them a tour. And when I say a tour, they’re standing behind me while I’m typing on one of these terminals. I’m traveling around the Arpanet showing them: Ooh, look. You can do this. And I’m in U.C.L.A. in Los Angeles now. And now I’m in San Francisco. And now I’m in Chicago. And now I’m in Cambridge, Massachusetts — isn’t this cool? And as I’m giving my demo, the damned thing crashed.

And I turned around to look at these 10, 12 AT&T suits, and they were all laughing. And it was in that moment that AT&T became my bete noire, because I realized in that moment that these sons of bitches were rooting against me.

AT&T trying to kill the internet, not seeing the business opportunity and insisting things could never work (when they obviously did)? That all sounds mighty familiar…

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Comments on “The First Fifty Years Of The Internet”

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Rich Kulawiec says:

Ah, the stupidity of AT&T's suits

As the ARPAnet evolved, and Usenet and CSnet came along, one of the things that became very obvious to us was that everything we would build would be based on open standards, open protocols, and open source. (Although this was well before those terms entered the common lexicon.) Nearly all of that work was being done on Unix — Bell Labs Research v6 and v7, and early versions of Berkeley Unix. This trend continued throughout the 1980’s, and grew as Sun and DEC and SGI and other vendors created their own Unix versions.

However, the refusal of AT&T to see the full potential of Unix and the enormous market it could create led to licensing disputes…which led in turn to the search for alternatives….the most well-known of which of course is Linux, which is presently exploiting a good chunk of that same enormous market. Had AT&T had the vision to grasp what it held in its hands — not just Unix, but the incredible resources of the people behind it — then there might be no Linux and AT&T might be reaping considerable rewards.

angry dude says:

horseshit from the master of demagogy

Much of internet’s everyday use is related to e-commerce

e-commerce is impossibe without reliable data encryption technology

The idea of public key cryptography and RSA algorithm were stories of the Patent System success ( ignore all the shitty lies Mikey will tell you)

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Re: horseshit from the master of demagogy

“The idea of public key cryptography and RSA algorithm were stories of the Patent System success”

No one, not even Mikey, thinks that all patents are bad. However, it does not follow that merely because some are good, that all are good.

And by the way, your dogmatic defense of patents is more out of touch with reality than Mikey’s critique of them.

Rich Kulawiec says:

Re: horseshit from the master of demagogy

Ecommerce is of course quite popular at the moment and attracts substantial amounts of attention and press. But in the long view — available to those who measure their ‘net experience in decades instead of mere years — it’s but a passing fad and means very little.

Of course, most ecommerce is conducted using open-source tools — the Apache web server, shopping sites built with perl, python and PHP, and oh yes — the OpenSSL encryption libraries. I’m sure this was an accidental oversight on your part.

Nasch says:

Re: Re: horseshit from the master of demagogy

But in the long view… [Ecommerce is] but a passing fad and means very little.

You really think people are going to mostly stop buying and selling things over internet-like worldwide communication networks? Why would that happen? Or do you have some other definition of e-commerce?

Rich Kulawiec says:

Re: Re: Re: horseshit from the master of demagogy

No, of course not. I expect other, more important and substantive, uses of the Internet to supersede ecommerce in terms of public perception.

Ecommerce generates considerable interest, publicity and arguably revenue; but it is a relatively unimportant aspect of the Internet — it just happens to be one of those involving money, which is unfortunately how some people of limited perception solely assess value. Those equipped with superior insight realize that this is but one way to assess value, and not a terribly important or meaningful one at that. They recognize that other uses of the ‘net (for instance: personal communication) have been and continue to be far more numerous and significant.

Ecommerce is just another marketplace, nothing more. But other things — for instance, the rise of citizen journalism — are far more interesting and important in the long run.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Re: horseshit from the master of patent trolling

angry dude wrote:

e-commerce is impossibe without reliable data encryption technology

The idea of public key cryptography and RSA algorithm were stories of the Patent System success…

Except that the RSA patent was only ever valid in the US, while much of the growth in the Internet since the introduction of e-commerce has happened outside the US.

Notice the connection?

dazcon5 says:

clueless suits

Before this “internet thing” AT&T hired a bunch of large brains and stuffed them in the Palo Alto Research Center or PARC. They asked the brains to show them the future of communications and the office, and they did! But the suits being clueless fools never figured out how to leverage the technology. PARC came up with the GUI, ethernet, laser printing, just to name the biggies.

Anonymous Coward says:

no, it really isn't 50

Think about it. 50 years ago was 1958. The U.S. hadn’t even launched a satellite successfully until that year. The first IC was not invented until that year. DARPA wasn’t established until that year. The concept of packet switching had only just been conceived. So it might be safe to say certain of the Internet’s foundations–as ideas anyway–are just barely 50 years old, but the Internet? No. There was no such “network” even on a tiny scale 50 years ago. The global internet might have been a glimmer in someone’s eye but that’s about it.

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