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ARPANET: Precursor to the Modern Internet
Web3 Social: Part 2, Creators Before the Internet
In the 1930s, a man named Alan Turing dreamed up the idea of a digital computing machine. A few years later, during World War II, he and a partner created a computer called The Bombe. The British military adopted it to intercept and decrypt German communications. The United States (U.S.) would develop their own.
The U.S. built its first digital computer in 1945. Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) calculated artillery tables.
Over the years, computer scientists continued their research. Machines grew in size, function, and speed. In 1952, IBM introduced the first mass-produced electronic computer, thereby ushering in the age of business computing. The IBM 701 became the U.S. Department of Defense’s favorite computer because of its ability to run fast computations.
As the world’s reliance on computers grew, thousands of national and global businesses, higher education institutions, and government agencies used them to handle daily business, defense, and scientific tasks. Many entities worked closely together on business and government initiatives, but their computers couldn’t communicate with each other. The need arose to network them so that people collaborating on projects in different geographical locations could work together more efficiently.
By the mid-1960s, wide area networks (WANs) were the norm. A Department of Defense agency called Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) saw a military benefit in having its own WAN. That realization gave birth to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET).
The ARPANET relied upon two recently developed technologies that would become essential elements of the Internet. Packet switching and the TCP/IP protocol allowed defense department and university research computers anywhere in the world to share information for military and national defense purposes. The ARPANET also had one other feature instrumental in maintaining a U.S. technological lead during the Cold War—it was decentralized.
ARPANET connectivity saw its consummation in 1969 and the Department of Defense’s network program officially launched a year later. In 1975, Congress created the Defense Communications Agency and gave it control over the ARPANET.
While a central office managed the defense asset, computers on the network had no hierarchy. Every computer had equal access to the network. This distributed nature was a benefit because it secured the network against a potential communications attack. If an attack took down one node on the network, the other nodes would pick up the slack, with no break in communications. This was during the height of the Cold War, so it was a very real threat.
The ARPANET was a decentralized U.S. Department of Defense asset that gave the U.S. a technological lead in the Cold War.
Because ARPANET was a government-owned asset, its use was restricted to noncommercial activities. It was widely used by government agencies and university research teams. However, over time, its expansion included major corporations involved in research and defense contracting. Some government agencies developed their own WANs.
By the mid-1980s, supercomputers had taken over several government agencies, and personal computers had become commonplace in U.S. homes. Public-private partnerships were created to network computers in state and local governments, nonprofit agencies, and private enterprises.
By the late 1980s, every major country had computer networks. In some cases, there were networks of networks connected to each other through TCP/IP protocols and packet-switching technology.
Users of these networks on both sides of the Atlantic realized that linking their networks together would be mutually beneficial. And that’s what they did. The ARPANET became an international (inter) network of networks (net). It pulled together independently developed WANs based on packet switching and the TCP/IP protocol from various countries around the world.
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