Protocols, devices and applications in Internet history (written 2010)

Excerpts from materials prepared for Diplo Foundation in 2010)




Core devices


There is so much to cover with the devices, applications and protocols that made the Internet what it is today, and it’s going to be difficult not to be too technical! But lets start with the processing devices people use to access the Internet.  And although way back in about 3000BC humans invented the abacus as the earliest processing device, we have to wait until the 1940s to see the first computers – the devices on which and for which the Internet was originally built.


One of the key thinkers leading to the evolution of the early computer was Vannevar Bush. His Memex system, one of his innovative designs, also bore a lot of similarity to the Word Wide Web which was to come half a century later.

Not much happened until the 1970s as far as the Internet is concerned. The sort of computers ARPANET and the early research networks were dealing with were monsters with very little power by today’s standards. Only computer scientists used them. Computers with the power of modern day pocket calculators occupied whole floors of buildings. I think at the time IBM predicted the world would only need 13 of them for planet Earth for all time!

Which would have been a pretty small Internet, probably confined to the research community in major universities and computer scientists. The invention on which the internet expanded, and gave it a real chance to reach out to billions of people, was the personal computer. Personal computers, networked over the global telephony infrastructure, is what created the network we have today.


The first personal computer, the Altair 8800, cost 379 US dollars and was shipped in January 1975. Over 1000 were sold. By 1977 The Radio Shack TRS 80, Apple 2, and Commodore PET were also on the market. IBM got the idea by about 1981 and released the first IBM PC. Apple, under the command of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, was the dominant player for a very short time,  but when IBM adopted Bill Gates (Microsoft) MS DOS system, they quickly took over market dominance and kept it for a long while. The early computer programmers called themselves hackers. At one stage Bill Gates would have been proud to be called a hacker. They called the software they created “hacks”.


These early computers were not invented to be networking devices – in fact, Apple thought their first computer’s main use would be  as a home protection system!

Early computers featured a thing called a “command line”. They didn’t yet have a mouse, although joysticks for games machines were starting to appear.  The first mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1968 but not adopted for PCs until much later.


We had to wait for the 1990s before Windows became popular on the IBM operating system. Windows, along with Ethernet, the tablet PC, and perhaps even the Internet itself, were inventions of the innovative Xerox Palo Alto  Laboratories during the 1970s and 1980s.



The mobile era



In the mid 1990s – and even to a degree up until the mid 2000s – the mobile phone world and the internet were two separate worlds altogether. But as the mobiles starting to adopt text messaging as an alternative to being a voice only device, a demand for a richer experience began to emerge.


As recently as 2000, a mobile phone that could access data services was a rarity outside of Japan, which led the adoption on line information services. But the early services were not internet based.  Also during the same era, a mobile phone with a camera was a novelty device with little or no market penetration.


In the year 2000, in Yokahama Japan, the author attended a presentation from a senior policy maker for a large computer manufacturer that pointed out all the reasons why the Japanese habit of text messaging and on line data services would never take off in the west!  Did they get that wrong – because, only ten years later, the number of mobile phones in use surpassed computers considerably, and a whole new era of mobile and wireless access to the Internet was well and truly established across the world. The internet had moved to a multi device network, in which computers were destined to become a device used by a minority of users.



Core applications


Parallel to the expansion of internet enabled devices was the growth caused by popular applications. And the first of these – even older than the internet itself – was email.



Email is much older than ARPANet or the Internet. It was never invented; it evolved from very simple beginnings.

Early email was just a small advance on what we know these days as a file directory – it just put a message in another user’s directory in a spot where they could see it when they logged in. Simple as that. Just like leaving a note on someone’s desk.

Probably the first email system of this type was MAILBOX, used at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1965. Another early program to send messages on the same computer was called SNDMSG.

Some of the mainframe computers of this era might have had up to one hundred users -often they used what are called “dumb terminals” to access the mainframe from their work desks. Dumb terminals just connected to the mainframe – they had no storage or memory of their own, they did all their work on the remote mainframe computer.

Before internetworking began, therefore, email could only be used to send messages to various users of the same computer. Once computers began to talk to each other over networks, however, the problem became a little more complex – we needed to be able to put a message in an envelope and address it. To do this, we needed a means to indicate to whom letters should go that the electronic posties understood – just like the postal system, we needed a way to indicate an address.

This is why Ray Tomlinson is credited with inventing email in 1972. Like many of the Internet inventors, Tomlinson worked for Bolt Beranek and Newman as an ARPANET contractor. He picked the @ symbol from the computer keyboard to denote sending messages from one computer to another. So then, for anyone using Internet standards, it was simply a matter of nominating name-of-the-user@name-of-the-computer. Internet pioneer Jon Postel, who we will hear more of later, was one of the first users of the new system, and is credited with describing it as a “nice hack”. It certainly was, and it has lasted to this day.

By 1974 there were hundreds of military users of email because ARPANET eventually encouraged it. Email became the saviour of Arpanet, and caused a radical shift in Arpa’s purpose. The timesharing concept for which it was originally intended had essentially failed, but email created a whole new communications purpose.

Things developed rapidly from there. Larry Roberts invented some email folders for his boss so he could sort his mail, a big advance. In 1975 John Vital developed some software to organize email. By 1976 email had really taken off, and commercial packages began to appear. Within a couple of years, 75% of all ARPANET traffic was email.

Email took us from Arpanet to the Internet. Here was something that ordinary people all over the world wanted to use.

As Ray Tomlinson observed some years later about email, “any single development is stepping on the heels of the previous one and is so closely followed by the next that most advances are obscured. I think that few individuals will be remembered.” That’s true – to catalogue all the developments would be a huge task.



Email drove mass adoption in the pre world wide web era known as the “protocol wars”. Governments continued to argue for some time for a completely different set of standards based on OSI; Hobbyist networks maintained the Fidonet system; various efforts such as APC and UFGate software bridged the Unix and PC based network worlds – and a host of commercial systems such as Dialcom, Compuserve, AOL and other email systems with entirely different operating systems were all seeking an answer to the connectivity crisis. But email exchanges across these systems were already working by a variety of means.

Later on, TCP/IP won the protocol wars on costs and simplicity of adoption. Soon after, the World Wide Web appeared, and the last of the laggards believing they had a separate future began to convert.
These were the days of per-minute charges for email for individual dialup users. For most people on the Internet in those days email and email discussion groups were the main uses. These were many hundreds of these on a wide variety of topics, and as a body of newsgroups they became known as USENET.

With the World Wide Web, email started to be made available with friendly web interfaces by providers such as Yahoo and Hotmail, and later Gmail. Usually this was without charge. Now that email was affordable, everyone wanted at least one email address, and the medium was adopted by not just millions, but hundreds of millions of people.


The World Wide Web


Before the World Wide Web the Internet really only provided screens full of text (and usually only in one font and font size). So although it was pretty good for exchanging information, and indeed for accessing information such as the Catalogue of the US Library of Congress, it was visually very boring.

In an attempt to make this more aesthetic, companies like Compuserve and AOL began developing what used to be called GUIs (or graphical user interfaces). GUIs (such as videotext) added a bit of colour and a bit of layout, but were still pretty boring. Indeed IBM personal computers were only beginning to adopt Windows interfaces – before that with MSDOS interfaces they were pretty primitive. So the Internet might have been useful, but it wasn’t good looking.

Probably the World Wide Web saved the net. Not only did it change its appearance, it made it possible for pictures and sound to be displayed and exchanged.

The web had some important predecessors, perhaps the most significant of these being Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project, which worked on the concept of Hypertext – where you could click on a word and it would take you somewhere else. Ted Nelson envisaged with Xanadu a huge library of all the worlds’ information. In order to click on hyperlinks, as they were called, Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse, which was to later become a very important part of personal computers. So the idea of clicking on a word or a picture to take you somewhere else was a basic foundation of the web.

Another important building block was the URL or Uniform Resource Locator. This allowed you a further option to find your way around by naming a site. Every site on the worldwide web has a unique URL (such as

The other feature was Hypertext Markup Language (html), the language that allowed pages to display different fonts and sizes, pictures, colours etc. Before HTML, there was no such standard, and the “GUIs we talked about before only belonged to different computers or different computer software. They could not be networked.

It was Tim Berners Lee and Robert Cailliau who brought this all together and created the World Wide Web. The first trials of the World Wide Web were at the CERN laboratories (one of Europe’s largest research laboratories) in Switzerland in December 1990. By 1991 browser and web server software was available, and by 1992 a few preliminary sites existed in places like University of Illinois, where Mark Andreesen became involved. By the end of 1992, there were about 26 sites.

The first browser which became popularly available to take advantage of this was Mosaic, in 1993. Mosaic was as slow as a wet week, and really didn’t handle downloading pictures well at all – so the early world wide web experience with Mosaic, and with domestic modems that operated at one twentieth of current internet speeds at best, were pretty bad and really didn’t give much indication of the potential of this medium.  Most engineers thought it was too slow and would never take off.

On April 30, 1993 CERN’s directors made a statement that was a true milestone in Internet history. On this day, they declared that WWW technology would be freely usable by anyone, with no fees being payable to CERN.


This decision – much in line with the decisions of the earlier Internet pioneers to make their products freely available – was a visionary and important one.  It is hard to overestimate the importance of this announcement, which made the WWW a platform for widespread innovation, rather than a proprietary money making software product.


By the end of 1994 there were a million browser copies in use – rapid growth indeed!!  In the same year Marc Andreesen founded Netscape Corporation, and the World Wide Web Consortium, which administers development of Word Wide Web standards, was formed by Tim Berners Lee.

Then we really started to see growth. Every year from 1994 to 2000, the Internet saw massive growth, the like of which had not been seen with any preceding technology. The Internet era had begun.

The first search engines began to appear in the mid 1990s, and it didn’t take long for Google to come on the scene, and establish a dominant market position.

In the early days, the web was mainly used for displaying information. On line shopping, and on line purchase of goods, came a little bit later. The first large commercial site was Amazon, a company which in its initial days concentrated solely on book markets. The Amazon concept was developed in 1994, a year in which some people claim the world wide web grew by an astonishing 2300 percent! Amazon saw that on line shopping was the way of the future, and chose the book market as a field where much could be achieved.

By 1998 there were 750,000 commercial sites on the world wide web, and we were beginning to see how the Internet would bring about significant changes to existing industries. In travel for instance, we were able to compare different airlines and hotels and get the cheapest fares and accommodation – something pretty difficult for individuals to do before the world wide web. Hotels began offering last minute rates through specially constructed websites, thus furthering the power of the web as a sales medium.

And things went even further – in some fields of travel, individuals would outline where they wanted to travel to and from, and travel companies would then bid for the business. All these developments rapidly changed the way traditional markets worked. In some industries, the world would never be the same again.



Core protocols


Now for the really hard part to explain, the core protocols and technical standards on which the Internet operates. Most people couldn’t care less as long as it does what it is supposed to, but in fact a lot of the problems and policy issues of today’s Internet emanate from the nature of the core protocols. So it’s worth trying to understand a little bit about these.

TCP IP (and resultant security issues)


The Internet base protocols and systems were mainly devised in the 1970s and 1980s. Many were established initially as a means to connect mainframe computer systems for timesharing purposes. The system introduced for this fairly trivial purpose has expanded to become a global multimedia information and communications system, connecting PCs, mobiles, and tens of millions rather than the few devices foreseen by the original inventors.

Parts of the system are now over 20 years old, and the Internet is required to perform a number of important functions not included in the original design. Various patches have been applied to base protocols and systems, not always evenly. How well does it perform these tasks? Well that’s a matter of some debate. But for now let’s look at the core systems and how they evolved.

The protocol which they say determines what the Internet is, is TCP/IP, or Transmission Control Protocol-Internet Protocol. Essentially, TCP/IP describes a protocol which will work on any sort of computer and operating system for transportation of data across the internet between different systems.

Invented in the 1970’s, largely adopted in the late 1980s, TCP/IP hit its first big problem in the early 1990s when it became apparent that the numbering system was going to run out of numbers in the foreseeable future. Therefore in 1995, after several years of work, TCP/IP Vs 6 was released to solve this problem. Adoption has been very very slow. TCP/IP has proven to be remarkably robust, but is very basic.

Simple Message Transfer Protocol (SMTP)

SMTP, or the Simple Message Transfer Protocol, is the basic standard for email, and again exists since the 1980s when the Internet was small and honest.

Perhaps more than any other system on the Internet, email has seen a number of improvements and different protocols, each of which has been adopted by only part of the Internet email community. This capacity not to adopt standards is a feature of the Internet, making dealing with change more difficult than it otherwise might be.

There is another thing about SMTP that stands out. SMTP comes from an innocent age, and no-one thought it would be necessary to prove that the person sending a message was who they said they were. The basic flaws in SMTP authentication are now causing significant problems, particularly the ease with which email sender details can be forged. This helps the transfer of some viruses and a lot of the worst spam, and makes Internet fraud a lot easier than it might otherwise be. Now not all viruses and spam can be attributed to problems with protocols, but better protocols sure would help.

File Transfer Protocol (FTP)

Another important protocol which dates from pre 1972 is FTP, or the file transfer protocol. This simply is the way to upload or download a file from an Internet computer. Just about everyone who owns a website uses this one.


Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP)

With the coming of the World Wide Web, we see another powerful protocol – http, or hypertext transfer protocol. HTTP allows us to click on the name of a site and visit it. Simple, but very powerful.

Peer to Peer protocols


Later still in an era where people began to use peer to peer networks – where computers connected directly to each other rather than through central server computers, another important development was BitTorrent (2004). This powerful protocol has become the centre of copyright disputes because of its role in downloading of movies and music, and its particular capacity to contribute to internet congestion. Many a policy issue has arisen from the availability and use of this protocol!

Modems and networks technologies
Modem is a term we are likely to forget soon in the digital age, but for many of us modems were where internetworking began. Modem is short for modulate-demodulate – that’s where it got its name. Modems enable the digital form of matter that a computer uses to communicate by the analogue form of transmission of old style telephone systems.

There were apparently some early modems used by the US Air Force in the 1950’s, but the first commercial ones were made a decade later. The earliest modems were 75 bps (or bits per second). That’s about 1/750th of the speed of current modems, so they were pretty slow! But to early networking enthusiasts, modems were 300 bps. Then came 1200, and by 1989 2400 bps modems.

By 1994, domestic modems had got to 28.8 kilobits per second – which was just as well, because by then we were beginning to send more than text messages over the Internet. This was thought to be an upper limit for phone line transmissions. But along came the 56k modem, and a new set of standards, so the speeds continue to push the envelope of the capacity of the telephone system.

So much so that many of have moved on, into wireless networks, and into “broadband” systems, which allow much faster speeds. But modems made the first critical link between computers and telephones, and began the age of internetworking.

Another of the former Arpanet contractors, Robert Metcalfe, was responsible for the development of Ethernet, which drives most local area networks.

Ethernet essentially made a version of the packet switching and Internet protocols which were being developed for Arpanet available to cabled networks. After a stint at the innovative Xerox Palo Alto laboratories, Metcalfe founded a company called 3-Com which released products for networking mainframes and mini computers in 1981, and personal computers in 1982.

With these developments in place, tools were readily available to connect both old and new style computers, via wireless, cable, and telephone networks. As the networks grew, other companies such as Novell and CISCO began to develop more complex networking hubs, bridges, routers and other equipment. By the mid 1980’s, everything that was needed for an explosion of internetworking was in place.



References and further reading


This lesson was largely compiled from my own writings at


For excellent information on computer history, try the Computer Museum (





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