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10 March 2017

The Geniuses that Anticipated the Idea of the Internet

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Names such as Vinton Cerf, co-author of the TCP/IP protocols, or Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, are essential in any review of the history of the Internet. But what is undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions since the birth of the human being is also an example of collective creation: no chronicle of the birth and evolution of the Internet would do justice without mentioning a long list of names that usually start at the dawn of the 1970s, when the ARPANET network of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the US Department of Defense began to incubate the embryo of what would later be adapted as a global network.

And yet, the origins of some concepts and technologies go back further, and for some, far further. In his book The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers (Walker & Company, 1998), British journalist and writer Tom Standage posited the suggestive thesis that the great revolution did not begin at the end of the twentieth century with the Internet, but more than a century before with the telegraph, which inaugurated the era of global communications in real time.

“The eventual success of the Atlantic telegraph paved the way for the wiring of the world,” Standage summarizes to OpenMind. And as this process unfolded there were some names that stood out, such as Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872). Standage states that Morse code was the great innovation of its time; instead of using an alphabetic telegraph that required several wires, such as that invented by Cooke and Wheatstone, the Morse dot-and-dash system allowed the use of only one cable between the stations, thereby reducing construction costs and allowing faster expansion.

Map of telegraph connections in 1891. Credit: Stielers Hand-Atlas

In other words, Morse’s innovation shifted the complexity from the hardware to the software, and the same idea is what has prevailed in the development of the Internet and its associated technologies: “We can easily add features to our phones by adding software (apps) rather than hardware (new chips inside them),” says Standage. “Look at what Vint Cerf did with Internet Protocol: he made the network layer as simple as possible, like Morse did; all kinds of applications can then be implemented in software at a higher level.” And interestingly, adds the author, the Internet pioneers did not know the history of the telegraph; they were surprised to discover the similarities later.

Licklider and the ‘intergalactic’ network

In addition to Morse, another key figure was Cyrus Field, the financier who “recognized the power of telegraphy to connect the world,” in Standage’s words. This vision of a globally connected world would be paramount afterwards for the development of the Internet, and the person who brought it to the current era of technology was Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (March 11, 1915 – June 26, 1990), first director of Office of Information Processing Techniques of DARPA (formerly ARPA). “J.C.R. Licklider promoted the idea of an ‘intergalactic’ computer network well in advance of the ARPANET work,” says Vint Cerf to OpenMind. “He was a strong proponent of the ARPANET project and later, the Internet project.”

Partial map of the Internet based on January 15, 2005 data. Credit: The Opte Project

Lawrence Roberts, another Internet pioneer who led the ARPANET project at DARPA as chief scientist, acknowledges that the idea of ​​the “intergalactic” network developed by Licklider in the early 1960s was his inspiration: “He wrote about the dream of a computer network and was in fact the one who excited me to build it,” says Roberts to OpenMind. “No one else I can think of had conceived of such a network and its value for sharing information.”

Vannevar Bush and Memex: the augmented memory

If the first arm of the Internet is technology, the second is definitely information. And in this field there was also an early pioneer, much earlier than not only any hint of a computer network, but even before digital computers themselves. Vannevar Bush (March 11, 1890 – June 28, 1974) headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development of the US government during World War II.

In the 1930s, Bush had the idea of the ​​Memex, “a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility,” wrote the engineer in his influential essay “As We May Think”, published in 1945 in the magazine The Atlantic Monthly.

Vannevar Bush with the differential analyzer, a a mechanical analogue computer. Credit: MIT Museum

Bush conceived of his Memex as a kind of augmented memory. The device, which was never built, was intended to be a desk with screens to project microfilms, a keyboard and various buttons and levers. But above all, the main innovation proposed by the engineer consisted of the way to access the information. Instead of using indexes in the traditional style, the Memex would work by the association of ideas, taking the user from some documents to others according to their content and thus providing a hint of what today we would call navigation.

For all this, the work of Bush is considered an early precursor of the ideas that would lead to the creation of hypertext links and web browsing. At a time when computers were still little more than large numerical calculators, Bush’s advanced vision would be an inspiration to the inventors of hypertext, Douglas Engelbart—also the father of the computer mouse—and Ted Nelson.

But the list of pioneers does not end here, far from it. Cerf also cites Paul Baran, Leonard Kleinrock, Donald Davies, Robert Kahn, Stephen Crocker, Louis Pouzin… They all made crucial contributions so that computers can communicate and understand each other in a global network that today not only covers the whole planet, but has already extended to the only permanent human settlement outside Earth, the International Space Station – the first step in what NASA has called the “Solar System Internet.” A monster, in the best sense of the word, with many heads, all of them geniuses and visionaries.

Javier Yanes

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