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Sunday, July 17, 2016

How the internet was invented | Technology | The Guardian

Photo: Ben Tarnoff

Please take a closer peek at this article as below by Ben Tarnoff, love history, science fiction, and California.
Photo: Danae Diaz at PVUK

In the kingdom of apps and unicorns, Rossotti’s is a rarity. This beer garden in the heart of Silicon Valley has been standing on the same spot since 1852. It isn’t disruptive; it doesn’t scale. But for more than 150 years, it has done one thing and done it well: it has given Californians a good place to get drunk.

During the course of its long existence, Rossotti’s has been a frontier saloon, a gold rush gambling den, and a Hells Angels hangout. These days it is called the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, and the clientele remains as motley as ever. On the patio out back, there are cyclists in spandex and bikers in leather. There is a wild-haired man who might be a professor or a lunatic or a CEO, scribbling into a notebook. In the parking lot is a Harley, a Maserati, and a horse.

It doesn’t seem a likely spot for a major act of innovation. But 40 years ago this August, a small team of scientists set up a computer terminal at one of its picnic tables and conducted an extraordinary experiment. Over plastic cups of beer, they proved that a strange idea called the internet could work.

 A plaque at Rossotti’s commemorating the August 1976 experiment.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, formerly Rossotti's
The internet is so vast and formless that it’s hard to imagine it being invented. It’s easy to picture Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb, because a lightbulb is easy to visualize. You can hold it in your hand and examine it from every angle.

The internet is the opposite. It’s everywhere, but we only see it in glimpses. The internet is like the holy ghost: it makes itself knowable to us by taking possession of the pixels on our screens to manifest sites and apps and email, but its essence is always elsewhere.

This feature of the internet makes it seem extremely complex. Surely something so ubiquitous yet invisible must require deep technical sophistication to understand. But it doesn’t. The internet is fundamentally simple. And that simplicity is the key to its success.

The people who invented the internet came from all over the world. They worked at places as varied as the French government-sponsored computer network Cyclades, England’s National Physical Laboratory, the University of Hawaii and Xerox. But the mothership was the US defense department’s lavishly funded research arm, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) – which later changed its name to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and its many contractors. Without Arpa, the internet wouldn’t exist.

As a military venture, Arpa had a specifically military motivation for creating the internet: it offered a way to bring computing to the front lines. In 1969, Arpa had built a computer network called Arpanet, which linked mainframes at universities, government agencies, and defense contractors around the country. Arpanet grew fast, and included nearly 60 nodes by the mid-1970s.

But Arpanet had a problem: it wasn’t mobile. The computers on Arpanet were gigantic by today’s standards, and they communicated over fixed links. That might work for researchers, who could sit at a terminal in Cambridge or Menlo Park – but it did little for soldiers deployed deep in enemy territory. For Arpanet to be useful to forces in the field, it had to be accessible anywhere in the world.

Picture a jeep in the jungles of Zaire, or a B-52 miles above North Vietnam. Then imagine these as nodes in a wireless network linked to another network of powerful computers thousands of miles away. This is the dream of a networked military using computing power to defeat the Soviet Union and its allies. This is the dream that produced the internet.

Making this dream a reality required doing two things. The first was building a wireless network that could relay packets of data among the widely dispersed cogs of the US military machine by radio or satellite. The second was connecting those wireless networks to the wired network of Arpanet, so that multimillion-dollar mainframes could serve soldiers in combat. “Internetworking,” the scientists called it.

Internetworking is the problem the internet was invented to solve. It presented enormous challenges. Getting computers to talk to one another – networking – had been hard enough. But getting networks to talk to one another – internetworking – posed a whole new set of difficulties, because the networks spoke alien and incompatible dialects. Trying to move data from one to another was like writing a letter in Mandarin to someone who only knows Hungarian and hoping to be understood. It didn’t work.

In response, the architects of the internet developed a kind of digital Esperanto: a common language that enabled data to travel across any network. In 1974, two Arpa researchers named Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf published an early blueprint. Drawing on conversations happening throughout the international networking community, they sketched a design for “a simple but very flexible protocol”: a universal set of rules for how computers should communicate.

These rules had to strike a very delicate balance. On the one hand, they needed to be strict enough to ensure the reliable transmission of data. On the other, they needed to be loose enough to accommodate all of the different ways that data might be transmitted.

Vinton Cerf, left, and Robert Kahn, who devised the first internet protocol.
Photograph: Louie Psihoyos/Corbis

“It had to be future-proof,” Cerf tells me. You couldn’t write the protocol for one point in time, because it would soon become obsolete. The military would keep innovating. They would keep building new networks and new technologies. The protocol had to keep pace: it had to work across “an arbitrarily large number of distinct and potentially non-interoperable packet switched networks,” Cerf says – including ones that hadn’t been invented yet. This feature would make the system not only future-proof, but potentially infinite. If the rules were robust enough, the “ensemble of networks” could grow indefinitely, assimilating any and all digital forms into its sprawling multithreaded mesh.

Eventually, these rules became the lingua franca of the internet. But first, they needed to be implemented and tweaked and tested – over and over and over again. There was nothing inevitable about the internet getting built. It seemed like a ludicrous idea to many, even among those who were building it. The scale, the ambition – the internet was a skyscraper and nobody had ever seen anything more than a few stories tall. Even with a firehose of cold war military cash behind it, the internet looked like a long shot.

Then, in the summer of 1976, it started working.
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Source: The Guardian


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