2,141 Words


How The Web Was Won

By Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.



The first computers were created in the 1950s. By the 1960s, serious science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, visionaries like Marshall McLuhan, and futurists like Alvin Toffler were writing both about the future of computers and the ongoing effects that technology was having on everyday lives.


By the 1960s, two things were apparent: that computers were shrinking the size of the planet; and that the future of computers was networking them into some kind of inter-connected network, or “Internet”.


What few of the writers realized was that the US government was thinking similar thoughts. The government’s concern however, was not with creating “the Global Village” that Marshall McLuhan was writing about in the mid-1960s, but surviving a nuclear war.


By the mid-1970s, the first personal computers hit retail stores. Today over 1/3 of American homes has a personal computer, and those numbers are skyrocketing.


During the mid-1980s, the computer network that the US Defense Department created to protect its communications network in the event of a nuclear war began to find a much more benign use. Just as the visionaries of the 1960s predicted, people began to link their personal computers together, and to meet other kindred spirits online.


Finally, in the mid-1990s, “Mosaic”, the first commercially available Internet browser, began appearing on people’s computers, being sold both on its own, and bundled with the software of online providers such CompuServe and AOL.


However, to see where it all began, let’s go back to the 1960s.


Birth of an Internet


Rent the movie Apollo 13, and watch the top rocket scientists in the world using slide rules, because it was 1970 and the microprocessor - the computer on a chip, mankind’s greatest invention so far - was still a year away. Eighty—five percent of the scientists who’ve ever lived are not only still alive, they’re still working. What will they invent in the next 20 years?” — Nick Murray, The Excellent Investment Advisor


In the 1960s, a variety of visionary thinkers began to discuss the creation of a wired planet. While the microcomputer had yet to be invented (see above quote from financial author and speaker Nick Murray), the handwriting was clearly on the wall.


“The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” — Marshall McLuhan


In 1966, Marshall McLuhan coined the term “The Global Village”. Twenty Years after World War II, and with the Vietnam War raging at full force, this was quite a radical idea.


In May of 1967, a year before 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he had co-written with Stanley Kubrick was released, science and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was asked to speak by the American Institute of Architects at their annual meeting in Manhattan. Here are some of his more prescient comments, many of which eerily foreshadow the online world of today.


Don’t forget that a generation has already grown up that never knew a world without TV. One communications revolution has taken place in our lifetime. The next revolution, perhaps the final one, will be the result of satellites and microelectronics, which will enable us to do literally anything we want to in the field of communications and information transfer...


Newspapers will, I think, receive their final body blow from these new communications techniques. I take a dim view of staggering home every Sunday with five pounds of wood pulp on my arm, when what I really want is information, not wastepaper. How I look forward to the day when I can press a button and get any type of news, editorials, book and theater reviews, etc., merely by dialing the right channel.


Electronic “mail” delivery is another exciting prospect of the very near future. Letters, typed or written on special forms like wartime V—mail, will be automatically read and flashed from continent to continent and reproduced at receiving stations within a few minutes of transmission.


And in 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, where he talked about computers, society, and even about long distance relationships. In it, he made comments about “The New Nomads”, in which he described the precursors to the incredible mobility of the Internet generation:


In California, ranch owners fly as much as 120 miles every morning from their homes on the Pacific Coast or in the San Bernardino Valley to visit their ranches in the Imperial Valley, and then fly back home again at night. One Pennsylvania teen-ager, son of a peripatetic engineer, jets regularly to an orthodontist in Frankfurt, Germany. A University of Chicago philosopher, Dr. Richard McKeon, commuted 1000 miles each way once a week for an entire semester in order to teach a series of classes at the New School for Social Research in New York. A young San Franciscoan and his girlfriend in Honolulu see each other weekends, taking turns at crossing 2000 miles of the Ocean. And at least one New England matron regularly swoops dawn On New York to visit her hairdresser.


Never in history has distance meant less. Never have man’s relationships with place been more numerous, fragile and temporary. Throughout the advanced technological societies, and particularly among those I have characterized as “the people of the future,” commuting, traveling, and regularly relocating family have become second nature. Figuratively, we use up places and dispose of them in much the same that we dispose of Kleenex or beer cans. We are witnessing a historic decline in the significance of place to human life. We are breeding a new race of nomads, and few suspect quite how massive, widespread and significant their migrations are.


What even the most visionary writers didn’t know is that the US government was creating the direct predecessor to the Internet in the late 1960s.


In April of 1998, I interviewed Louis Rossetto, the CEO, founder and executive editor of Wired magazine, in his office in San Francisco, and asked him how the Internet began.


“It was set up by Arpa, which was a research arm of the defense department, to connect researchers together in an atomic bomb-proof network. So instead of having direct landlines, they had a distributed network that passed messages along So that if you took a node out of the network, the messages could route around that node, in the event of a nuclear attack. So if one computer went down, it didn’t screw up the whole system.


“It gradually became popular in the academic community. People used it to communicate with each other, and then in effect to publish on it. And then gradually more and more people got interested in using it for communications and ultimately for publishing, and now for commerce.”


Arpa stands for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it was founded in 1958. The original name changed in 1972 to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to reflect its assimilation into the Defense Department. The Arpanet, established in 1969, was the first wide-area network and the direct precursor to the Internet. Arpa built it as a research-sharing tool.


By the 1980s, The Arpanet was overshadowed by the National Science Foundation’s high-speed NSFNet backbone and the regional networks connected to it. Around this time, people began to think of this interconnected collection of networks as an Internet.


Today, the dream of a global village is now a reality. The Internet made it possible. Nina and I live this dream everyday. We have friends scattered about the United States, England, France, Germany, and other countries, but we can send them email instantly, or talk online with them for hours, all for the price of a local phone call.


How I Discovered the Online World


     I was ten years old when I saw my first personal computer. It was an Altair 8800, which my school had acquired in 1976. I’ll never forget walking into the classroom where it was kept. Seeing that machine for the first time, it was a bit like all of my dreams from watching Star Trek and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey had come true.


The Altair was hooked up to a Western Union teletypewriter, which was being used as its keyboard and printout device. The monitor, a converted television set, would come a little later. Programs were entered in and saved to paper tape, which the machine punched, a bit like a player piano, to save programs.


Soon after that, Radio Shack introduced their first TRS-80 personal computer in the late 1970s. I managed to convince my parents to buy one, ostensibly to use in their retail store. While ultimately I didn’t use it for much more than learning the BASIC computer language and playing games, it was still a neat experience, in retrospect, to be part of that pioneering computer age.


Around 1981, I had a 300-baud modem installed in my TRS-80. With it came a free trial membership to CompuServe. I’ll never forget the first few times I wandered into “CB”. CompuServe’s GO CB section was (and is) an attempt to recreate the feeling of the then-extremely popular phenomenon of Citizen’s Band radio. It was amazing to see how many people were online — even then — and to talk to so many different people.


Even at the age of 16, it was obvious to me that talking online was a way to really get to know other people and to get inside their “head”. It didn’t take me too long to get used to typing instead of writing. And it didn’t take me too long to meet people on CB.


Interestingly enough, my interest in computers waned as I started my first year in college in 1983. I was too busy studying and attending classes to spend time with my computer. Of course, nowadays, students use their laptops and personal computers all of the time. At the time, I didn’t have a printer, or a decent word processing program to use with my TRS-80.


It was right around this time that so many personal computer breakthroughs began to occur.


IBM released their personal computer in 1983. Because they allowed a then relatively unknown software designer named Bill Gates, and his company, Microsoft, to keep the rights to the computer’s Disk Operating System (better known as DOS), Gates was free to license his operating system to dozens of small upstart companies. Thus, “clones” of the IBM PC began to proliferate.


During the 1984 Super Bowl, Apple launched their Macintosh computer with a stunning commercial directed by Ridley Scott, fresh off directing the blockbuster science fiction film Blade Runner. While it wasn’t the first computer to feature one, The Macintosh introduced most of the America public the concept of a graphical user interface (GUI, pronounced “goowie”). Rather than the textual-oriented black screen with white alphanumeric characters of DOS, the Mac’s screen was white, bright, and friendly, and a mouse allowed the user to intuitively point and click, rather than memorize and constantly type in commands, which DOS required.


In the late 1980s, Microsoft began developing a graphical user interface of their own, called Windows, that worked in conjunction with DOS. By the early I 990s, Windows 3.1 was an extremely popular interface for people using IBM PCs. -


I purchased an IBM clone made by Commodore in 1989. However, I didn’t have modem installed in it. At the time, going back online just didn’t seem as important to me as having a computer that could do basic word processing, and a printer to spit it out.


The Commodore IBM clone was replaced in 1993 by another computer, which had Windows 3.1 installed. But even then, I didn’t resume going online until I started my own business in mid-1994. Because I needed to communicate with one of my product providers via fax and email, I had a 14,400-baud modem installed in my computer. Soon after, I began to go online, back to CompuServe.


By then, CompuServe had designed a GUI of their own for Windows called WinCim. WinCim made navigating through CompuServe much easier than when I used DOS on my old TRS-80.


I was floored by how far CompuServe had progressed since my pioneering days of the early 1980s. It seemed like there were forums about everything! And so much information was at my fingertips.


In late 1995, I purchased my first laptop, an AT&T Globalyst 130, that came with Windows95 preinstalled. Windows95 is the successor to Windows 3.1, and is now the standard interface for clones of the IBM PC. By November of 1997, I was living in California, but I was able to get my parents back in New Jersey online, by purchasing a WebTV box and keyboard for them to put atop their living room television set. Although they have limited computer skills, they quickly picked up on the basic concepts of the WebTV box.


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