Wednesday, 4 June 2008

WRONG: The internet was invented by a Brit

It’s widely believed that Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet, but that’s not strictly true. He invented the World Wide Web, which lives on the internet. It’s the difference between inventing books and inventing paper.

So if Sir Tim invented the book, who invented the paper? In 1945, Vannevar Bush, Director of the US Office Of Scientific Research and Development, wrote an article for Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think, in which he proposed an electro-mechanical system called the Memex. This would allow for direct links between microfiched documents and give scholars access to “millions of fine thoughts”. (He presumably didn’t anticipate 2 Girls 1 Cup.) The article decribes a hypothetical scholar, sat at his Memex researching the history of the bow and arrow in a way that sounds remarkably like Googling.

Seventeen years later, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Director Joseph Licklider updated Bush’s idea in a series of memos articulating his vision of a “Galactic Network” of interlinked computers. The concept survived, but sadly for us all, the name did not.

In 1969, thanks to the technical genius of Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn (among others), the first node of the first computer network – ARPANET – went live at UCLA. A small number of other agencies, including the British Post Office, joined in, creating the International Packet Switching Service in 1978. The movement continued to grow through the 80s into various educational and commercial networks which were finally linked together using Cerf and Kahn’s technological advances (“TCP/IP”, or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol).

So much for the paper. Now the book: those in the know were able to transfer information directly between computers, and even e-mail each other, but the World Wide Web didn’t come into being until 1990 at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The Centre employed some 3000 staff, with research data stored on hundreds of separate computers and networks, much of it inaccessible to other employees. In late 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed an information-management system based on hypertext, an interlinking form of text that was a direct descendant of Vannevar Bush’s Memex ideas. The result, one year later, was the first browser, a prototype of applications like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

After toying with names like The Information Mine (which he abandoned after noting the initials) and Information Mesh, he decided to emphasize the global and decentralised nature of his project and called it WorldWideWeb. (He later renamed his program Nexus to distinguish it from the networked “large universe of documents” it enabled, ie the World Wide Web.) The first ever web address was Sadly the original page no longer exists, but a later copy reveals the prophetic first words to be, “The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.”

At that point there were 600,000 internet users, most of them academics. Thanks in part to Berners-Lee’s astounding generosity in making the web free to all (he never made a penny from it directly, though by any normal commercial standards he would have been entitled to) within five years, there were 40 million. According to Internet World Stats, at the time of writing that number is close to a billion and a half.

But wouldn’t we all have been happier surfing the Galactic Network?

For no reason at all, here are some genuine websites from the history of the internet whose creators didn’t think through their URLs:

• – wisely changed after a few years to
• – dedicated to tracking down therapists, not rapists
• – for those seeking celebrities’ representation, not gifts for prostitutes
• – an Italian firm specialising in batteries that would also benefit from a hyphen: powergen-italia
• – home of the Mole Station Native Nursery, of course!

E-mail – and its use of the @ symbol – was invented in late 1971 by Ray Tomlinson of Bolt, Beranek and Newman Technologies. The first e-mail is lost to history, but Tomlinson recalls that, “Most likely the first message was QWERTYUIOP or something similar […] It is equally likely to have been ‘TESTING 1 2 3 4’. Probably the only true statements about that first email are that it was all upper case (shouted) and the content was insignificant and forgettable”.

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