40 years of the internet

As the internet hits 40, we trace its early origins, look at its anarchic development and consider where it might be going in the future.

This was a method of sending information over a network in pieces, or packets, that were then reassembled at the other end, rather than circuit switching in which all the data was sent at once and blocked the connection until it was complete.

A famous myth is that the Arpanet was built as a command and control' network, meaning that it was built with multiple nodes in order that command and control could be maintained in the event of a nuclear attack, though in fact this wasn't the case.

Nevertheless, there's no doubt that the origin of the internet was military, which makes it slightly ironic that the money went into academic institutions which were primarily left wing and usually anti-establishment.

When that first connection was made in 1969 between UCLA and SRI, the network has two nodes and this expanded to four by the end of the year. By 1973, the Arpanet has hit 35 hosts, and it took until 1977 to break 100.

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Email arrives

By that time, email had come into existence. Messages had been around even before the creation of the Arpanet, when terminals were able to talk to each other, but when networked computers arrived a system of addressing needed to be created.

Email as we know it now appeared in 1972, when an Arpanet contractor picked the @ symbol from the keyboard to separate the user and the computer it was being sent to.

The importance of NGOs

However, while the role of the military and academic institutions is the primary method for the existence of the internet, Professor Willetts believes that it was the NGOs who really pushed it over the edge.

In 1977, the computer modem enabled individuals to connect to a network via a home computer. By the early 1980s, home computers and modems were relatively affordable and this led to the creation of networks. These were not military or academic but were created by hobbyists or nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

Willets has made it his special project to research and document the activities of these early networks, that he has dubbed mono-nets'. These are networks that had global reach but were separate and distinct. They did not link up with each other and initially were not aware of each other's existence.

However, he believes that it was these groups that were in fact the most influential in the creation of the internet as we know it today.

"The definition of a network is one to which the public has access. It's socially and politically important," he said. "All of this stuff was going on but it was not open to the public. It was available to academics and then students, but you had to be part of the university system."

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