Session I (part 1): A Brief History of the Internet

Welcome to Internet 101!
Internet 101 is a module that is designed to help you learn about the basics of traveling the Internet. It is designed to combine mini-lectures with lab exercises which you will complete on your computer. There is: (1) a video version for those of you with a high bandwidth line, (2) an audio version for those of you with a low bandwidth line, and (3) this text version for those of you who cannot get to either of the above versions.

There are four sections to Internet 101:

  1. Introduction and World Wide Web Browsing
  2. Internet E-mail
  3. File Transfer over the Internet
So, let's go ahead and get started!

What is the Internet?
The Internet is a series of networks connected to networks. Networks come in many different sizes and shapes these days, but one thing they all have in common is that they are computers connected to computers. The computers are connected with bridges and routers and switches and all kinds of complex hardware that we will not go into here.
But more importantly, the Internet is people connected to people, and people connected to information. The Internet has become a primary medium for obtaining information, and a means of interacting with other people and organizations in some very new and exciting ways. The Internet exists and travels along the same infrastructure that our telephone calls travel on. We use the same fiber, microwave towers, and copper wire to get those messages across.
The final thing about the Internet that you should know is that no one is in charge. It is a grassroots organization, or non-organization, if you will, that has sort of arisen in a lot of different places at the same time and so it often may seem disorganized.

History of the Internet?
Let's talk a little about the history of the internet so that you will know how that grassroots organization developed.

Probably the first organization that was involved in the development of the Internet was called ARPAnet. ARPAnet was a military research organization in the early 1970's that was designed with the concern that if one military installation was bombed out, how would other military instillations still communicate with each other. They wanted to develop a communications system that could survive the destruction of certain military communications centers without taking out the whole network. So the idea of redundancy in the system was very important to ARPAnet. Out of this concern rose the development of a protocol called IP, or Internet Protocol. IP delivered information from one site to another in small packets that were not required to follow any specific path to their destination, thereby making delivery possible even if a part of the network was destroyed. You are going to be hearing a lot about Internet Protocol as you do more and more on the Internet. It's the basic language that the Internet speaks, and that is probably the main thing you need to know about IP at this time.

The slide on the right is a simplified diagram illustrating the concept of redundancy of the early ARPAnet military communications sites. What you can see from it is that if any one of the sites were destroyed, the other installations could still communicate with each other.


National Science Foundation
Another early player in the development of the Internet was the National Science Foundation (NSFnet). They decided to fund a number of supercomputing sites, based typically in large universities, and these supercomputers would allow researchers and educators to have access to high-level computing power which had previously only been accessible to the military and large corporations. These different supercomputing sites were connected together via telephone lines, and therefore, they could exchange information.

Before too long, secondary sites (secondary universities, research organizations, etc.) also wanted to partake of the supercomputing powers and therefore, connected to the NSF backbone at the primary sites. As a result of this, a whole new world of collaboration opened up between researchers and educators. Another result of this was that soon the Internet was quite overloaded, and that continues to this day. The NSF withdrew its funding in 1995 feeling that the Internet had reached a point that it would survive on its own. And, it seems to be doing quite nicely!

ARPAnet & NSFnet
The slide on the right is an illustration of the ARPAnet with the NSFnet superimposed over it to show you how the complexity increased.

Local Area Networks
The third major player in the development of the Internet was local area networks or LANs and commercial network providers. LANs are typically office or university groups of computers (networks) that have been connected together to share files, data bases, printers, interoffice mail, etc. They began to proliferate early in the 1980's, and as a result of that proliferation, they began to connect to the Internet. So first, they were connected locally, but then as the Internet grew, they were able to connect to the global Internet, giving them a lot more reachability and power.
Commercial network providers saw an opportunity to provide connectivity services to LANS and individuals, and several large networks developed in the late 80's and early 90's. Today there is a huge rush by these commercial providers, as well as traditional telephone companies, to take advantage of the exponential growth of users.

The Internet Matures
The slide to the right illustrates the addition of LAN's and commercial networks on top of the NSFnet and ARPAnet. Obviously, the diagram that you see here is infinitely less complex than what the Internet today really is.


Misconceptions about the Internet
First of all, it is not very organized, as mentioned earlier. It is a grassroots movement that sort of has a life of its own. However, it is getting more organized with the availability of powerful search engines and indexes, and it is getting easier to find the things that you need to find on the Internet.
Secondly, the Internet is not a panacea for education. Even though Internet technology and telecommunications will probably transform the way education is delivered over the next several years, it won't do away with the need for face to face teachers who work with their students.
Thirdly, the Internet is not an Information Super Highway, as our Vice President would lead us to believe, in fact, for those of you who have spent any time on it, will know that often times it feels more like a county road...the huge amount of traffic....having a little difficulty keeping up with.
Finally, it is not controlled by anyone. Even though there are some organizations that set standards for the Internet and help to give out domain names which we will discuss later, there is no one organization or government that is in charge.

For additional information about the evolution of the Internet, see the following site:
George and Mikes Guide to Windows 95 - The Internet

Next: Session I (Part 2) Internet Basics

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