The Internet Chronicles – Part 1 of 12: The Vision That Started It All

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We take it for granted nowadays, but the internet is one of the most impactful inventions of modern times – possibly even of all time. But how did it all start? The story of the internet is a fascinating journey through the minds of visionary thinkers and relentless innovators, many of them coming from mathematics and computer science. In this series, we will dive into some of the stories and contributions of the trailblazers who laid the foundations for the interconnected world we live in today.

From the initial concepts to the development of the global network we see today, each part of this 12-part series will explore the pivotal moments and key figures who turned the dream of a connected world into a reality. We will journey back to the early days of computer science and the internet, uncovering the ideas and collaborative efforts that paved the way for the digital age.

In this episode, we look at the audacious vision that started it all.

Before the Internet

Graphical depiction of a “map” of an internet network with connected nodes. Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. Image credits: Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5).

Humans are a very communicative species. Our ability and desire to communicate is, perhaps, one of the defining features that enabled us to thrive on this planet. We talk to our family, we talk to our friends, we talk to random people we have never met before. However, direct communication only gets you so far.

In the late 19th century, the invention of the electrical telegraph brought a revolution in communication. For the first time, people had access to a system of communication that could cross large distances essentially instantaneously. Radiotelegraphy and telephones gradually became more common, but such systems were limited to point-to-point communication between two end devices. Furthermore, they only allowed the same type of mediated spoken communication. But what if you wanted to send someone a document, or some different kind of information?

To most people in 1960, this would have seemed unimaginable. After all, the first computers had only just been invented, and they were about as big as a room – the thought of linking such devices remotely and using them for communication purposes belonged rather to the realm of science fiction.

But not for J.C.R. Licklider.

Licklider, a psychologist by training, envisioned a global network that would allow people to share information and work together regardless of their physical location. In 1960, he published what would become a groundbreaking paper called “Man-Computer Symbiosis.”

In the paper, Licklider argued that computers should not be regarded as performing separate activities to humans. Computers and humans should work together, not in parallel. Looking back, some of the ideas he presented in this paper seem strikingly prescient.

“In the anticipated symbiotic partnership, men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking. Preliminary analyses indicate that the symbiotic partnership will perform intellectual operations much more effectively than man alone can perform them,” the researcher wrote in the seminal paper.

Licklider, circa 1950. Image credits: Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0).

Licklider’s core idea was that computers would do routine work effectively and quickly. For this, you would need processing speed and easy user interfaces that would allow humans to interact with computers with ease. While this may seem normal to us now, at the time users would interact with computers using punch cards. However, Licklider wanted users to interact directly with the interface and obtain results immediately.

To this day, the paper is often cited as a foundational text in the field of computer science and human-computer interaction.

However, publishing a paper is one thing, but how do you get this type of idea off the ground?

Envisioning the Internet

The early days of the internet are tightly connected to the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA (later rebranded as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) was essentially the research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense; it was where the most ambitious and audacious technology programs of the military were developed. It was also where Licklider was employed as the director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office.

As director, he commissioned the funding of various projects. From 1962 to 1964, he funded Project MAC at MIT. Project MAC had the objective of exploring the possibilities of time-sharing, where multiple users could simultaneously access a central computer. This was a departure from the batch processing systems of the time, where computers executed tasks sequentially, often leading to inefficiencies and long wait times.

Early computers looked much different than what we are accustomed to today. Image credits: Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0).

The project became famous for its groundbreaking research in a number of fields, including operating systems and computation theory. MAC also featured a large mainframe computer that could be shared by up to 30 users simultaneously, each with their own terminal. This approach would go on to become what we now call a server. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

In parallel to this project (and other work carried out with ARPA), Licklider kept pushing his visionary idea. In a series of memos sent out around 1962, he promoted what he called the “Intergalactic Computer Network.”

As grandiose as that name sounds, what Licklider was describing was essentially a proto-internet. He described the network as “an electronic commons open to all, ‘the main and essential medium of informational interaction for governments, institutions, corporations, and individuals.'”

Licklider was advocating for more than just technology. Rather, his intention was to enhance human capabilities with computers and then interlink those computers in a universally connected network. This “intergalactic” network began catching on at ARPA and Licklider’s ideas were reaching all the right people. His support for time-sharing systems and interactive computing also highlighted the advantages of a networked world; suddenly, this crazy idea of interconnectedness did not seem all that crazy anymore.

The Stage Is Set

In a 1968 paper he co-authored, called “The Computer as a Communication Device,” Licklider described another incentive of this type of global network.

“Take any problem worthy of the name, and you find only a few people who can contribute effectively to its solution. Those people must be brought into close intellectual partnership so that their ideas can come into contact with one another. But bring these people together physically in one place to form a team, and you have trouble, for the most creative people are often not the best team players, and there are not enough top positions in a single organization to keep them all happy. Let them go their separate ways, and each creates his own empire, large or small, and devotes more time to the role of emperor than to the role of problem solver. The principals still get together at meetings. They still visit one another. But the time scale of their communication stretches out, and the correlations among mental models degenerate between meetings so that it may take a year to do a week’s communicating. There has to be some way of facilitating communication among people [without] bringing them together in one place.”

While this matter of remote communication is still not completely solved (as we all witnessed during the recent COVID-19 pandemic ), Licklider was once again very right about how the internet can turbo-charge collaboration and make working relationships much more efficient.

Licklider was not the only one to have developed theories of networking around this time. Independently, Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation was proposing a distributed network system around the same time. Simultaneously in the UK, Donald Davies of the National Physical Laboratory was proposing a national commercial data network. This was not the unique vision of one single man, yet Licklider’s push proved to be instrumental. He was in the right place, at the right time, convincing the right people.

His work convinced ARPA to start looking into this type of project more carefully and ultimately, in 1969, ARPA awarded contracts for the development of ARPANET. This single decision would prove to be instrumental for the development of the internet and ultimately, for our society as a whole. This story would go on to include the technologies proposed by Davies and Baran, as well as several other key internet pioneers.

The stage was set for the first iteration of the internet to emerge.

But that is a story for our next installment.

This is part 1 of 12 of a monthly series on the development of the internet. In the next part, we will look at how the first true iteration of the internet – ARPANET – came to be. We will see how the mathematical framework for packet switching became a cornerstone for data transmission across networks and how the first email was sent.

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Andrei is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in geophysics. He is the co-founder of ZME Science, where he published over 2,000 articles. Andrei tries to blend two things he loves (science and good stories) to make the world a better place -- one article at a time.

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