Internet History |  BCS

Internet History | BCS

You may have thought that the development of the Internet was a purely American affair. You would be wrong. Before we go too far, let’s clarify our terms. Tim Berners-Lee from the UK designed the hugely popular Internet application, the World Wide Web. But not the Internet itself – the network on which the World Wide Web operates.

No less an authority than Vint Cerf, co-author of TCP/IP and co-founder of the institutions that administer the Internet, says you’d be wrong too. Cerf addressed a webinar organized by Archives of IT and BCS for over 300 participants on January 6, 2022 and focused on the UK’s contribution to the early work. The contribution of people in the UK was “absolutely essential” to the development of the internet, says Cerf. British contributions from the UK have been “extremely important” to its development.

Many of the Archives’ 200 interviews and 30,000 pages of publications support Cerf’s claim, with details of work done by British engineers and articles describing the growth of its use. Records show that the UK contributed to the first implementation of a packet-switched network, the basis of TCP/IP; the world’s first implementation of TCP/IP; and the Internet’s first international node outside of the United States.

The UK’s Contribution to Internet History

The idea of ​​switching packets, not circuits, was first sketched out and implemented by Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, South West London. He had joined the NPL in 1947, and by the early 1960s he was working on data communications, which he found to occur in bursts, unlike voice communications, which were at a steady rate.

Digital communications between computers therefore usually took place over a line dedicated to a single connection which was then only used for a fraction of the time available. Better to divide the data into “packets”, a term he chose after the advice of a linguist, and send them over the line with other packets from other “conversations”. He sketched this in 1965 and the idea was floated by a colleague at an American conference in 1967 where it was picked up.

Alas, Davies died in 2000 before the Archives could capture his oral history, but another interviewee, Ann Moffatt, recalled meeting Davies: “It was a special Computer Society lecture, but who was held at the NPL and Donald Davies was working on what we later came to call packet switching, but we didn’t call it that then.

But the idea was to send data packets around the world! Anywhere in England or across the world, using computers, sending data files. On the phone lines. I mean, it was just amazing that anyone would think of it, and I thought if we could merge computers and phone lines, it would open up such an interesting life.

History of the Internet and early implementations

And they merged. TCP/IP was conceived in the United States by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, after hearing about Davies’ work at the 1967 American Conference. Its first worldwide implementation was in the United Kingdom at the University College London (UCL) by Peter Kirstein CBE and colleagues.

Kirstein told the Archives, “Bob was my project manager and Vint was a pretty junior professor at Stanford. They envisioned this new internet protocol, and part of something like that was you had to have implementations. So the first of three implementations was done by this young Stanford scholar called Vint Cerf, someone from Bolt, Beranek & Newman, who were the people who actually provided the computers for the ARPANET, and myself , at least one of my collaborators, or two, several of my people. And we had the first real implementations between the three of us. So we were researching the internet from around 75.

As Kirstein said: “Around that time, 1976, 1977, there was a lot of standardization work going on in Europe, and the British were part of that standardization work. They didn’t approve of the ARPANET [the precursor of the internet] because they considered it an experiment, and even though the academics liked and tolerated it, they certainly didn’t consider it mainstream and were perfectly happy for me to log into the ARPANET, but they didn’t want the people work on the internet side of things. So I was ordered to stop working on Internet protocols.

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