Two of this week’s milestones in the history of technology highlight the foundations laid 50 years ago that are at the core of today’s debates over net neutrality and the open Internet.
On December 6, 1967, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) at the United States Department of Defense issued a four-month contract to Stanford Research Institute (SRI) for the purpose of studying the “design and specification of a computer network.” SRI was expected to report on the effects of selected network tasks on Interface Message Processors (today’s routers) and “the communication facilities serving highly responsive networks.”
The practical motivation for the establishment of what became known later as the Internet was the need open up and connect isolated and proprietary communication networks. When Robert Taylor became in February 1966 the director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at ARPA he found out that each scientific research project his agency was sponsoring required its own specialized terminal and unique set of user commands. Most important, while computer networks benefited the scientists collaborating on each project, creating project-specific communities, there was no way to extend the collaboration across scientific communities. Taylor proposed to his boss the ARPAnet, a network that will connect the different projects that ARPA was sponsoring.
What Taylor and his team envisioned was an open and decentralized network as opposed to a closed network that is managed from one central location. In early 1967, at a meeting of ARPA’s principal investigators at Ann Arbor, Michigan, Larry Roberts, the ARPA network program manager, proposed his idea for a distributed ARPAnet as opposed to a centralized network managed by a single computer.
Roberts’ proposal that all host computers would connect to one another directly, doing double duty as both research computers and networking routers, was not endorsed by the principal investigators who were reluctant to dedicate valuable computing resources to network administration. After the meeting broke, Wesley Clark, a computer scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, suggested to Roberts that the network be managed by identical small computers, each attached to a host computer. Accepting the idea, Roberts named the small computers dedicated to network administration ‘Interface Message Processors’ (IMPs), which later evolved into today’s routers.
In October 1967, at the first ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles, Roberts presented “Multiple computer networks and intercomputer communication,” in which he describes the architecture of the “ARPA net” and argues that giving scientists the ability to explore data and programs residing in remote locations will reduce duplication of effort and result in enormous savings: “A network will foster the ‘community’ use of computers. Cooperative programming will be stimulated, and in particular fields or disciplines it will be possible to achieve ‘critical mass’ of talent by allowing geographically separated people to work effectively in interaction with a system.”
In August of 1968, ARPA sent out a RFQ to 140 companies, and in December 1968, awarded the contract for building the first 4 IMPs to Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN).These will become the first nodes of the network we know today as the Internet.
The same month the contract was awarded, on December 9, 1968, SRI’s Doug Engelbart demonstrated the oNLine System (NLS) to about one thousand attendees at the Fall Joint Computer Conference held by the American Federation of Information Processing. With this demonstration, Engelbart took the decentralized and open vision of the global network a step further, showing what could be done with its interactive, real-time communications.
The demonstration introduced the first computer mouse, hypertext linking, multiple windows with flexible view control, real-time on-screen text editing, and shared-screen teleconferencing. Engelbart and his colleague Bill English, the engineer who designed the first mouse, conducted a real-time demonstration in San Francisco with co-workers connected from his Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at SRI’s headquarters in Menlo Park, CA. The inventions demonstrated were developed to support Engelbart’s vision of solving humanity’s most important problems by harnessing computers as tools for collaboration and the augmentation of our collective intelligence.
The presentation later became known as “the mother of all demos,” first called so by Steven Levy in his 1994 book, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything.
Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center was sponsored by Robert Taylor, first at NASA and later at ARPA. In an interview with John Markoff in 1999, Taylor described the prevailing vision in 1960s of the Internet as regulated public utility:
The model that some people were pushing in those days for how this was going to spread was that there were going to be gigantic computer utilities. This was the power utility model. I never bought that. By the late 60’s, Moore’s Law was pretty obvious. It was just a matter of time before you could afford to put a computer on everyone’s desk.
Technology and the businesses competing to take advantage of its progress, it turned out, made sure the decentralized and open nature of the Internet would be sustained without turning it into a regulated utility. That also encouraged innovation not only in terms of the underlying technologies, but also and in building additional useful layers on top of the open network. Robert Taylor told Markoff in 1999:
I was sure that from the early 1970’s, all the pieces were there at Xerox and at ARPA to put the Internet in the state by the early ’80’s that it is in today . It was all there. It was physically there. But it didn’t happen for years.
What did happen was Tim Berners-Lee, who in 1989 invented the Web, a decentralized (as opposed to what he called “the straightjacket of hierarchical documentation systems”), open software running on top of the Internet that transformed it from a collaboration tool used by scientists to a communication tool used by close to 4 billion people worldwide.