Top ten internet history myths

26 Aug 2011

PC Pro contributing editor, Davey Winder, has been writing about the internet for more than 20 years. Along the way he's collected quite a few persistent internet history myths. Now’s the time to do a little debunking

1. The internet was a military network designed to survive a nuclear attack

No it wasn't, but it's easy to see why people think it was. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was certainly the first operational packet-switching network, and it was certainly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the US Government. The idea being that defence projects being carried out at universities and research labs could communicate with each other, without worrying about the unreliable network links of the late 1960s.

It was not, however, created as part of any command and control system. Nor was the notion of surviving a nuclear attack a consideration according to statements from those who were in charge at the time, including Bob Taylor who ran the project from the Pentagon and has gone on record as stating "the creation of the ARPANET was not motivated by considerations of war".

It is true that without the creation of the ARPANET there could have been no internet, but neither contemplated nuclear meltdown as a driving development factor. In actual fact, ARPANET was more about the time-sharing of research supercomputers than any weapon-based global network scenario. Two myths busted for the price of one.

2. Al Gore invented the internet

Only in his head. What the former vice president of the United States did do, as a Congressman way back in the 1970s, was promote the concept of computer “comms” as something that could be good for both commerce and education. The internet itself didn't actually exist back then, so why does the Gore myth prevail?

Well, as a Senator he was responsible for drafting legislation that helped fund internet infrastructure development in the early 1990s, one of which (the High Performance Computing and Communication Act) became known as the Gore Bill. But perhaps the most obvious reason that the myth exists is that Gore himself stated on US television in 1999 that during his time in Congress “I took the initiative in creating the internet".

The first written use of the word "internet" - shorthand for "internetworking" - seems to have been by Vint Cerf back in 1974, so Gore cannot even claim responsibility for that. Gore did, however, win a Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigning work on climate change as illustrated in a 2006 documentary film, the title of which could just as easily apply to his claims of internet parenthood: An Inconvenient Truth...

3. Packet switching was an American invention

Not completely true, but not a total crock either. What actually happened was that people in the US and the UK were working on similar packet-switching techniques at pretty much the same time. The myth that is often perpetuated is that Leonard Kleinrock and Paul Baran invented packet switching which the ARPANET used in 1969. The truth is that an Englishman called Donald Davies, working at the National Physical Laboratory, was also developing a packet-switched network concept in 1965.

In 1967, a program manager with the Advanced Research Projects Agency met with Davies, and the two groups that had been independently developing the same thing started working together, with packet switching ending up at the heart of the emerging ARPANET. Interestingly, the name packet switching was taken from Davies' work.

4. The first ever email said "QWERTYUIOP"

Keyboard

Assuming that we accept the first email was sent between a couple of PDP-10 computers, by a network engineer working at BBN by the name of Ray Tomlinson way back in 1971 (see myth number five), then the actual content of that very first email was actually the equally boring "Testing 1-2-3".

The QWERTYUIOP myth seems to have sprung up from the fact that these represent the top row of alphabetical characters on a keyboard, and no other reason. Interestingly, the person Tomlinson (who is also credited with being the first person to use an @ sign in an email address) sent that boring message to was, erm, himself. Not all internet history is exciting, even for hard-nosed geeks...

5. Ray Tomlinson sent the first email

The real truth depends on how you define email. Some would argue that users of the MAILBOX system at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who dropped messages in the directories of other users of the same mainframe computer were the first back in 1965. Tomlinson gets the credit as he was the first to exploit email more as we know it today, in that he found a way in late 1971 of sending messages between interconnected computers across a network (ARPANET) rather than dumb terminals accessing the same computer. By the end of the 1970s, more than 75% of all ARPANET traffic was email! So I guess we can call this myth only half-busted.

6. Google invented internet search

Not even close. The first internet search tool was called Archie (think archive without the v, because that's how it got the name) and was created way back in 1990 by computer science students at McGill University in Montreal. Archie created a searchable database of the downloadable files to be found on anonymous FTP sites in the public domain.

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