ARPANET: the First Decade

Arpanet Information BrochureIn response to my post about the “Three Visions of “ARPANET,” Paul Bond did some digging on the internet yesterday around the history of ARPANET as a way to demonstrate the possibilities of targeted Google searches limited to specific extensions, such as .gov, .mil, or .edu for students in The Internet Course:

I thought it might be interesting to see what kind of official documents are available online. I looked up what’s out there in the .gov domain (arpanet and the first hit is a nice looking site from the NSF on the birth of the internet.  I tried the same approach with military sites (arpanet and found the history of DARPA, and a 50 year retrospective.

What he found was pretty awesome. I particularly enjoyed the report published in 1981 by Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (the engineering firm that literally built the internet) titled “A History of the Internet: the First Decade.” The executive summary frames language that we often here in our day and age about the “revolution in computer technology”:

Just as the telephone, the telegraph, and the printing press had far-reaching effects on human intercommunication, the widespread utilization of computer networks which has been catalyzed by the ARPANET project represents a similarly far-reaching change in the use of computers by mankind. The full impact of the technical changes set in motion by this project may not be understood for many years. (I-2)

They were busting out the “printing press” analogy as early as 1981! I really appreciate the early awareness that the potential impact of the internet couldn’t be fully fathomed in 1981. It’s a nice executive summary ten years in. I’m also interested in how they explain the purpose of the ARPANET given that, as I blogged about yesterday, it’s often popularly conflated with a mission critical military communications network. According to this 1985 report published by the Defense Communications Agency,  a military network wasn’t formalized until 1983:

In 1983, the existing ARPANET was administratively divided into two unclassified networks, ARPANET and MILNET, to meet the growing need for an unclassified operational military network as well as the need for a research and development network. The physical split into separate networks was completed in September 1984. Each network now has its own backbone, and is interconnected through controlled gateways to the other. The ARPANET serves primarily as an experimental research and development network, while the MILNET functions as an operational military network for non-classified traffic. Communication and resource sharing between them continue, but are subject to administrative restrictions. (4)

The idea that from the beginning ARPANET was a “research and development network” reinforces that from the beginning, despite visions of a failsafe communcitaions network in the event of nuclear war, this network was very much an experimental network premised on sharing resources, preventing redundancy, and re-imagining communications. MILNET, the operational military network didn’t become its own entity until 1983.

The ARPANET Information Brochure published in 1978 discusses an earlier move. This brochure points out the network was moved from DARPA to the Defense Communications Agency (DCA) in 1975. So six years after the network was built, it was moved out of the initial experimental phase:

Following the successful accomplishment of initial ARPANET design goals and the expansion of the network, it was considered appropriate to transfer the responsibility for operation of the ARPANET from DARPA to the Defense Communications Agency (DCA). In July 1975, the DCA became the operational manager of the ARPANET.

In that same introduction there is an official overview of what ARPANET was designed for (I lovee to see this stuff spelled-out):

The ARPANET is an operational, resource sharing inter-computer network linking a wide variety of computers at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored research centers and other DoD and non-DoD activities in CONUS, Hawaii, Norway, and England. The ARPANET originated as a purely experimental network in late 1969 under a research and development program sponsored by DARPA to advance the state-of-the-art in computer internetting. The network was designed to provide efficient communications between heterogeneous computers so that hardware, software, and data resources could be conveniently and economically shared by a wide community of users.

Exactly, an “experimental network …. to advance state-of-the-art in computer internetting.” The basic math that helped realize the fantastic vision of such a platform. I think it’s important to remember ARPANET wasn’t given to universities and commercial interests after all the hard work had be done—rather the work was being done by the government, universities, engineering firms, and telecoms from the very beginning. A complex series of relationships that often get lost in the historical afterglow.

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