In the very early days of computing, the first of what came to be known as mainframe computers were enormous. In fact, people changing the vacuum tubes in them put the tubes in shopping carts and, on roller skates, pushed the carts around. Personal computers weren’t even close to being on the technology radar screen.
Today, the thought of a world without desktop computers is inconceivable. The one you use gives you more power on your desk than did the computers that took our early astronauts to the moon, and by quite a margin.
But back in the 1960’s, getting computers “to talk” to each other and exchange data through a “packet-switching network” was considered impossible. Today, packet switching is the way data is routinely sent back and forth over the Internet. Networks using packet switching are set up in “nodes” (computers, printers and other shared devices hooked up to the network).
When data is sent, the packet-switching process notes the computer sending the data and the computer receiving it. It then chops the data into packets, and they are sent through the network. When they arrive at their destination, packets are reassembled into data that is recognizable by the recipient computer. This enables many data streams to move simultaneously through the network. If we didn’t use packets, all of the data being exchanged would be scrambled in transit.
But that technology was elusive back in 1969, when a small group of computer scientists got together to build the first packet-switching network. Their attempt involved just four computers, and after the requisite number of failures, they were successful. Little did they know that they had just given birth to the Internet.
In its infancy, the network was called Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). During the 1970s, when a thaw in the Cold War was about as likely as is Elvis’ return today, the military was concerned about how to safeguard its data during a nuclear war. When the generals heard about the success of the 1969 network, they decided to build on it.
By the early 1980s, 300 computers were on the network, which then splintered into two, ARAPANET and MILNET. Over time, universities and other educational institutions, and, eventually, corporations, became network sharers.
ARAPNET dissolved in 1990, but the Internet emerged and now encompasses several major packet-switching networks. The size of the Internet today, the opportunities it provides and technologies it harnesses and generates are right up there with the concept of eternity – unfathomable. In the context of time, its evolution has been stunningly rapid. In fact, history books will record the development of the Internet in the fewest number of pages of any major technological development.
There were, of course, those who doubted the Internet would be anything more than a flash in the pan. A considerable number of people told me not to quit the day job when I started building Web sites in 1994. They’re now eating technodust.
Article – Copyright 2000 James H. Hyde. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA