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Christopher Mims

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Unearthed: A Documentary Treasure on the History of the Internet

15 minutes of a rarely-seen BBC documentary demolish the myth that ARPAnet was inspired by nuclear war, and explain the far more intriguing truth.

  • May 1, 2011

The impending deletion of content from Google Video has inspired quite a few uploaders to port their content to Youtube, unearthing a trove of pre-YouTube-era gems like this one. It’s a BBC documentary from 1997 called Inside the Internet, and features interviews with the scientists who actually built the infrastructure on which the Internet is based.

It’s full of details that are not common knowledge among the billions who now rely on the Internet:

• Leonard Kleinrock, the computer scientist who helped set up the very first piece of hardware to comprise the Internet, an “Interface Message Processor,” demolishes the myth that the ARPAnet, the precursor to today’s Internet, was set up as a communications network that would be able to continue to pass message even after some of its nodes were knocked out by nuclear war.

Instead, it was simply a means for engineers to give themselves access to the capabilities of remote computers that their systems might not possess.

• The Internet was – and still is – based on sending tiny packets of information back and forth (aka “packet switching”) because the mathematical theory known as Queueing Theory suggested that the best way to avoid congestion on a communications network was to send small, individually addressed packets of information that could be routed one at a time, so as to find the shortest route.

• UNIX, the basis of Linux (essential to web servers), Mac OS X and countless open-source OSes was born at Bell Labs, and was a product of the frustration of Bell Labs computer scientists with the software they had been forced to use up to that point. It was an internal project that was licensed to academic institutions for only a nominal fee, which helped it go viral.

• The combination of old-style modems operating through telephone lines and the Unix program UUCP allowed the first network of machines that was not part of the officially sanctioned ARPAnet. Called Usenet, it forwarded message from one machine to the next, whenever they happened to connect to the next machine in the chain via modem.

By connecting the edges of the blooming Internet, it helped to create a system in which there was no central node. This made the network immune to censorship, whether intentional or accidental. This, in turn, helped feed the rumor that the network had originally been conceived as one that would be invulnerable to the loss of any central communication hubs(s).

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