Early Internet Developments (2010 writings)

A Brief History of the Internet (prepared for Diplo Foundation by Ian Peter)





As Marshall McLuhan notes in his 1960s classic, “Understanding Media”

“It is instructive to follow the embryonic stages of any new growth, for during this period of development it is much misunderstood, whether it be printing or the motor car or TV”. [i]

For instance, the early motor car was called the horseless carriage – and most people of that day saw only that the motor vehicle would do what the horse and carriage had done before it. No-one was envisaging aeroplanes, long distance trucks, high speed highways and cars, intercontinental travel, and the other advances that came from this base discovery – people just looked at this as a way to get to town to go shopping.

We see something similar in the case of the telephone system. In the early days, Alexander Graeme Bell thought it would be good for broadcasting music. So we envisaged the early uses as being of a “broadcast” nature – one way communications. Then people thought it would be good for sending Morse code messages.

However, even back then in 1863 we can see the very beginnings of thinking about how this new infrastructure might be used one day. In that year futurist Jules Verne, without a doubt the king of science fiction writing, told us of a future world where “photo-telegraphy allowed any writing, signature or illustration to be sent faraway – every house was wired”.[ii]

Now that’s as good a description of what was to come as you can get! Jules Verne also anticipated the first trip to the moon, so he often talked of events and inventions well before they happened.

It was some time before people thought the telegraph system would be good for people talking to each other, and the word “telephone” evolved. That idea stuck for quite some time as the dominant purpose of these networks, but by the 1980s we were beginning to see some other uses for networks emerge.
Electronic networks began with the telephone, or telegraph system as it was known in the beginning. Here the origins are pretty clear – the first line was built in 1844 from Washington to Baltimore. By 1858 a transatlantic cable was in place, and by 1861 – a mere seventeen years after the first connection – telegraph wires covered the USA.

Within 150 years of its first beginnings, the telegraph network infrastructure had become the biggest single connected construction on the planet – and off the planet as well! Just think of it: it wields its way across continents and under oceans in a massive encircling web of fibre, cables, wires, satelliture, and wireless connections. These connections carrying our profound thoughts, our wildest fantasies, our financial transactions, news, music, and just about anything we can express in words or written language.

This is the physical infrastructure on which the Internet was built, and on which it relies. This infrastructure also explains the historical role of telecommunications companies in the Internet. Now most of them had nothing or very little to do with the early evolution of the Internet, as we shall see in following sections, but they did control the infrastructure the Internet used for distance communication.

In Lesson 1, we largely concentrated on a number of developments involving large mainframe computers. Usage outside of the scientific community was negligible. It needed the personal computer for interest and usage to take off.

There might have been an Internet without personal computers, but it would have been uninteresting, and probably confined to the research community and computer scientists. The first invention that gave the Internet a real chance to reach out to over two billion people, and to make it the sort of network it is today, was the personal computer. Personal computers, networked over the global telephony infrastructure, is what created the network we have today.

More about that in lesson three, but for now we should note: none of these computers – either the new PCs or the old mainframes – had been designed to be communicating devices (the main objective was thought to be their processing power). So a means had to be found to connect them to networks. Here two more developments became important – the modem, which connected early computers to telephone lines, and Ethernet, a standard which was developed for “Local area networks” or LANs (where computers were really all in the same room or area and could be “wired” together).


At the same time as the academic and research communities were creating a network for scientific purposes, a lot of parallel activity was going on elsewhere building computer networks as well.

A lot of the West Coast computer pioneers (or hackers as they were called) belonged to the Homebrew Computer Club, founded by Lee Felsenstein. Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Steve Jobs (Apple) were both members. Lee had actually begun networking computers before the development of the PC, with his Community Memory project in the late 1970s. This system had dumb terminals (like computer screens with keyboards connected to one large computer that did the processing). These were placed in laundromats, the Whole Earth Access store, and community centres in San Francisco. This network used permanent links over a small geographical area rather than telephone lines and modems.

The first public bulletin board communications system using personal computers and modems was written by Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss in Chicago in 1978 for the early amateur computers. It was about 1984 that the first bulletin boards using the IBM (Bill Gates/Microsoft) operating system and Apple operating systems began to be used. The most popular of these was FidoNet.

In the community networking field early systems included PEN (Public Electronic Network) in Santa Monica, the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) in the Bay area of San Francisco, Big Sky Telegraph, and a host of small businesses with online universities, community bulletin boards, artists networks, seniors clubs, womens networks etc. ..

Gradually, as the 1990s began, these networks also began adopting the TCP/IP standard. Now the PC networks and the academic networks were joined, and a platform was available for rapid global development.

By 1989 many of the new community networks had joined the Electronic Networkers Association. When they met in San Francisco in 1989, there was a lot of activity, plus some key words emerging – connectivity and interoperability. Not surprisingly in the California hippy culture of the time, the visions for these new networks included peace, love, joy, Marshall McLuhan’s global village, the paperless office, electronic democracy, and probably Timothy Leary’s Home Page. However, new large players such as America on Line (AOL) were also starting to make their presence felt, and a more commercial future was becoming obvious. Flower power gave way to communications protocols, and Silicon Valley just grew and grew.

PEN (The Public Electronic Network) in Santa Monica,(1989) may be able to claim the mantle of being the first local government based network of any size.

Meanwhile, back in the academic and research world, there were many others who wanted to use the growing network but could not because of military control of Arpanet. Computer scientists at universities without defence contracts obtained funding from the National Science Foundation to form CSNet (Computer Science Network). Other academics who weren’t computer scientists also began to show interest, so soon this started to become known as the “Computer and Science Network”. In the early days, however, only a few academics used the Internet at most universities. It was not until the1990s that the penetration of Internet in academic circles became at all significant.

Because of fears of hackers, the Dept of Defence created a new separate network, MILNet, in 1982. By the mid-1980s, ARPANET was phased out. The role of connecting university and research networks was taken over by CSNet, later to become the NSF (or National Science Foundation) Network.

The NSFnet was to become the U.S. backbone for the global network known as the Internet, and a driving force in its early establishment. By 1989 ARPANet had disappeared, but the Information Superhighway was just around the corner.

Then there’s the commercial networks. They also started to appear in the early 1970s, and probably there were two distinct types – commercial on line databases and information providers, such as Dialog and Lexis Nexus, and messaging service providers, such as Compuserve and Prodigy. To these we can add a little later the services based on Videotext – a sort of early graphical user interface allowing pictures and images on line. Most national telecommunication companies adopted this format initially. Another early and innovative service was French Minitel, with its attractive handsets for a better user experience on line. We should also mention Tymnet, Dialcom and British Telecom services as other pioneers, and America on Line (AOL) a bit later.

Let’s look at the global spread of networks beyond the USA.

Fidonet, the first large network to connect personal computers, was established in 1983. By 1990 there were 2500 hosts all over the world, although mainly in western countries. A lot of these were for computer hobbyists, but meanwhile we were beginning to see some specific types of network appear.

FreeNets were another model, with the most prominent being in Ottawa Canada and Cleveland Ohio. The Freenet model gave free access, and the service was paid for by people such as government bodies who wanted to get information out to the general public. FreeNets played a large role in community building, but the financial model was problematic and the cost of upgrades beyond the under-budgeted operators. FreeNets were important pioneers in many areas and the first introduction to networking for many people.

In addition to these more geographically centered activities, global communities of interest (later to become known as virtual communities) were starting to evolve.

One such network, and a major player in the early growth of the Internet, was the Association for Progressive Communications (or APC). Formed by the joining of PeaceNet and Econet in San Francisco with GreenNet in the UK in 1987, by 1989 the fledgling association had seven foundation countries providing major hubs. These connected to other countries with less established facilities, and through association with similar bodies such as Interdoc, and Poptel in the UK, many contacts and connections were coming on board.

The driving minds of the early network were Mark Graham from PeaceNet and Mitra Ardron from GreenNet. They saw that, by creating low cost host computers for social movements in various countries, they could spread the network quickly to a lot of non profit and activist groups who might otherwise not be able to afford to communicate. With the technical help of Scott Weikart and Steve Fram from Community Data Processing, they set out to create some simple messaging and conferencing software, and to make UNIX available on the IBM personal computer so that low cost hosts could be set up.

Meanwhile the Cold War was breaking down, and APC played an interesting part in that as well. By 1992 the US Government changed legislation to allow the export of computer chips and software to the USSR.(before that they were considered to be illegal exports). Very quickly Glasnet sprung up in the USSR, with satellite networks in many eastern European countries.

The Russian coups became a fascinating global event, with eyewitness accounts. “The tanks are coming, the tanks are coming” on the Internet from independent reporters on the scene. The Internet became part of the Russian people’s struggle. Glasnet, the San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, and other facilities played an as yet undocumented role in the events which were to follow and change the face of global politics.

By the end of 1992, largely due to the pioneering efforts of people like Carlos Afonso in South America and Mike Jensen and Karen Banks in Africa, close to 100 countries were connected to APC networks – just a few more countries than the more mainstream academic and research networks which formed another strong development arm of the Internet. Major UNIX hubs fed information to smaller systems using Fidonet technologies in smaller countries. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) played a major role in South American countries, and APC members assisted the development of networks suitable for smaller countries and regions, such as Pactok in the Asia Pacific region.

As governments started to realize that access to the growing net had social advantages, and that the socially disadvantaged should have special initiatives to encourage access, a number of government and charity sponsored initiatives began. HandsNet in the USA looked to address poverty issues. SeniorNet, naturally enough, encouraged access for senior citizens. In Australia, the Community Information Network, the brainchild of Hr Peter Baldwin, looked to provide access for people on low incomes. Most of these experiments became subsumed as the net grew, but they provided important roles in understanding the implications of access to or lack of access to the net.

Thus, even as early as 1994, there were significant forums arguing the case for universal access, and for access to the powerful information and communication features of the Internet to be regarded as a basic human right. In an age where a powerful communications media existed, the argument went, lack of access was denial of a fundamental human right – the right to communicate. These early initiatives provided the foundation for the digital divide initiatives which began in the late 1990s in an attempt to address the global imbalance in Internet usage.

The trouble was, all of these separate networks didn’t easily connect with each other, and used a range of different formats and standards for email, message forwarding etc. And there was quite a battle between the various standards for several years, with governments originally favouring and often mandating a series of international standards backed by ITU, OSI (or GOSIP as it was often referred to as a set of government standards).

OSI was well thought out and well architected, but was never adopted by the commercial sector. So there was very little hardware and software for it, making it hard to implement. Largely because of this, Internet standards largely took over, with even the laggards adopting by the mid 1990s.

But it was the World Wide Web which gave the newly forming network its great leap forward. In our next lesson, we will look at how the network evolved and grew as the various applications that made it popular took off.


References and further reading

[i] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York, 1964),


[ii] Jules Verne (1963) – “Paris in the 20th Century” (manuscript)

Association for Progressive Communications history page – http://www.apc.org/en/about/history


A good coverage of early commercial developments by Kim Veltman is at http://www.mmi.unimaas.nl/people/Veltman/veltmanarticles/articles%20official/2002%20American%20Visions%20of%20the%20Internet.doc


Much of this lesson was drawn from my own observations and involvements during this period and is also covered in http://www.nethistory.info/History%20of%20the%20Internet/index.html




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