The Growth of the Internet

One of the largest military think-tanks following WWII in the US was the RAND Corporation. RAND thought up many of the projects that eventually became highly influential in US thinking, and among them was the proposal to develop a communications network that would be able to function through a Nuclear War. In order to do this, they reasoned, the network must have no central authority because that central authority would be the first thing targeted by an enemy. Also, it would have to be designed from the ground up to operate through major internal destruction.

On the impetus of this thinking, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made a call for a packet-switched network. It would evolve through many stages, but would eventually settle on a method that was rugged though inefficient. Each packet of information would be an individual entity which would bounce around from computer to computer, in an effort to reach it's final destination. The path from sender to receiver would, by design, not necessarily be the most direct path. As Vinton Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet writes, this ability is what allowed the network to function through adversity in a July 1977 trial run:

So what we were simulating was someone in a mobile battlefield environment going across a continental network, then across an intercontinental satellite network, and then back into a wireline network to a major computing resource in national headquarters. Since the Defense Department was paying for this, we were looking for demonstrations that would translate to militarily interesting scenarios. So the packets were traveling 94,000 miles round trip, as opposed to what would have been an 800-mile round trip directly on the ARPANET. We didn't lose a bit!
The fact that it was developed with decentralization in mind is what allowed the Internet to grow as quickly as it did. The Internet could support any kind of computer, and it was very modular, allowing the addition of computers in an evolutionary and anarchic way. Costs were low because people only paid enough to fund their own computer and connection to a couple of other computers. There were no worries about the network breaking down because of a computer failure because it had originally been designed to operate through wartime computer destruction. The Internet quickly became a collection of thousands of nodes, as is illustrated below in a visualization of the NFSNET in December, 1994. Keep in mind that this is just one network that is part of the much vaster Internet.
What's truly interesting about the Internet, is that as it grew and evolved, the people on it no longer wanted to use it for number crunching and computer time-sharing, areas for which it was originally intended. Instead, people got much more use out of it in different ways, as profiled by Bruce Sterling:
By the second year of operation, however, an odd fact became clear. ARPANET's users had warped the computer-sharing network into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post- office. The main traffic on ARPANET was not long-distance computing. Instead, it was news and personal messages. Researchers were using ARPANET to collaborate on projects, to trade notes on work, and eventually, to downright gossip and schmooze. People had their own personal user accounts on the ARPANET computers, and their own personal addresses for electronic mail. Not only were they using ARPANET for person-to-person communication, but they were very enthusiastic about this particular service -- far more enthusiastic than they were about long-distance computation.
This was the beginning of the Internet as a social force, one that would eventually develop into a World Wide Web of information and interaction for people throughout the world.

Sterling further postulates that the reason people want to be on the Internet is that it is a "rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy" devoid of censors and bosses. This level-playing field, where people are forced to work out problems through cooperation and collaboration makes the Internet evolutionary in a way that echoes the English Language. The English Language functions despite no central hierarchy or control. Standards are agreed upon by the community of English speakers, and the language works. The Internet works as well.

For a more specific listing of Internet developments, you may consult these timelines.

From here, you may go up to the introduction, or forward to the history of hypertext.

Chris Boraski