Many times, progress is not deliberate. Sometimes genius (and progress) arrives by chance, not choice. Many notable creations, including the microwave, artificial sweeteners, the slinky, Play-Doh, super glue, Teflon, synthetic plastic, the pacemaker, Velcro, and x-rays (Biddle, 2012), were all invented by chance, error, or accident. However, one accidental invention many may not even consider is the Internet. Every day, over 3 billion users are interconnected (ITU, 2015) instantly to a world-wide network of computer networks and a trove of information. While many take this invention for granted, the idea of connecting the entire world was not deliberate and the proliferation and ubiquity of the Internet came about by accident.
While the invention of the Internet was accidental, the technology and foundation that supported it was not. The Internet began with a successful bid by BBN Technologies in 1969, in response to an RFQ from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to create a survivable and sustainable communications network. The goal of this network, dubbed the ARPANET, was to use computer technologies to meet the needs of the US military command and control infrastructure to remain survivable for nuclear control and to improve tactical and management military decision making (Lukasik, 2011). This technology included multi-path packet switching and auto-computing routing tables to allow transmission of data over a given number of paths to any single destination in order to remove single points of failure. The initial ARPANET consisted of 4 nodes: (1) the University of California, Los Angles, (2) Stanford University, (3) the University of California, Santa Barbara, and (4) the University of Utah. The ARAPNET continued to grow, with the number of sties increasing to 57 by 1975 and 231 in 1981 (Abbate, 2000).
By the 1980s, the ARAPNET had grown from a simple information exchange for cutting edge research and military sustainment to a complete communication utility. Its development inspired the creation of numerous other networks such as NASA’s NSN, the National Science Foundation’s CSNET and NSFNET and the Department of Energy’s ESNet. While initially separate networks operating independently of the ARPANET, the idea of internetworking established by the ARPANET led to interconnecting of networks, most notably the interconnection of ARPANET, CSNET, and NSFNET in 1985 and 1986. As a result, the first network of networks, the informal Internet was formed (Tucker, Moulds, & Governance, 2013). This trend of network interconnection continued, resulting in a rapidly growing number of interconnected networks. Ultimately, the Internet came into existence in 1994 and 1995 when the United States privatized the interconnection of networks to businesses and corporations (Shah & Kesan, 2007). Packet switching, network interconnection, and automated routing, all of which were initially created to allow US military strategic advantage and further defense research, had unknowingly spawned into a vast network of billions of users and nodes to connect the entire world.
Numerous forces supported the accidental development of the ARPANET into the today’s Internet. The first key factor was economical forces. During the 1970s computer resources were isolated, disparate, and (most importantly) extremely expensive (Metropolis, 2014). The ARPANET and the idea of interconnecting hosts and networks provided a way to reduce expenditures to connect and maintain systems required for advanced research and education. The idea of internetworking, and later the Internet, provided a way to reduce these costs by allowing expensive computing power to be shared, resulting in an explosion of adoption of the technology by institutions, organizations, and governments. The second key factor was technological forces. By the 1970s and 1980s, computing resources and technologies had reached a level of sophistication and power capable of performing complex and multiple operations (Ceruzzi, 2003). This resulted in an increased number of computing machines capable of connecting to networks and capable of performing research. This accelerated the development of the Internet as there was an increased need to share information among sites and an increasing number of sites and hosts to be interconnected. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the innovation of internetworking emerged, the United States was still in the height of the Cold War and in the midst of numerous tense and volatile international crises. There was a distinct need to be able to coordinate the armed forces and military organizations in the event of existing communications failures. Although the military affiliation and association of the Internet is disputed by the Internet Society (Leiner, Cerf, Clark, Kahn, Kleinrock, Lynch, Postel, Roberts, & Wolff, 2009), Lukasik (2011), at the time the Deputy Director of ARPA, clearly indicated the goal was to “exploit new computer technologies to meet the needs of military command and control against nuclear threats, achieve survivable control of US nuclear forces, and improve military tactical and management decision making”. The internetworking capabilities of ARPANET and the Internet were properly poised to meet the national defense needs of the United States to sustain communications and coordination capabilities. The combination of these economical, technological, and national forces facilitated the accidental innovation of the Internet from its humble beginnings as the ARPANET.
On February 28, 1990 the ARPANET was formally decommissioned, as it had been overtaken and replaced with the now ubiquitous Internet it had created. Vinton Cerf, a former manager for ARPA and an Internet pioneer bid it farewell with a fitting lamentation:
“It was the first, and being first, was best,
but now we lay it down to ever rest.
Now pause with me a moment, shed some tears.
For auld lang syne, for love, for years and years
of faithful service, duty done, I weep.
Lay down thy packet, now, O friend, and sleep.” (Abbate, 2000).
While the ARPANET was no longer one of the vast networks connected into the Internet, its legacy was forever cemented as the development that had accidentally created the impetus and idea which became the Internet.
Abbate, J. (2000). Inventing the internet. MIT press.
Biddle, S. (2012). The 10 greatest (accidental) inventions of all time. Retrieved April 30, 2016 from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/38870091/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/t/greatest-accidental-inventions-all-time/.
Ceruzzi, P. E. (2003). A history of modern computing. MIT press.
ITU. (2015). ITU ICT Facts and Figures – The world in 2015. Retrieved April 30, 2016 from http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/facts/default.aspx.
Leiner, B. M., Cerf, V. G., Clark, D. D., Kahn, R. E., Kleinrock, L., Lynch, D. C., Postel, J., Roberts, L. G., & Wolff, S. (2009). A brief history of the Internet. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review, 39(5), 22-31.
Lukasik, S. J. (2011). Why the ARPANET was built. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 33(3), 4-20.
Metropolis, N. (Ed.). (2014). History of computing in the twentieth century. Elsevier.
Shah, R. C., & Kesan, J. P. (2007). The privatization of the Internet’s backbone network. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 51(1), 93-109.
Tucker, D., Moulds, G., & Governance, B. (2013). A Brief History of FLOSS.