CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, September 21, 1998 

History lesson of the Starr Report

I'm quite sure that almost everyone is sick of hearing the details of the now infamous Starr Report. But try, just for a moment, to step back from the tawdry details of this report and marvel at the technology that allows the global dissemination of original information in a matter of minutes from the time of its release.
 I can't recall another time in history when something as voluminous and historic as the Starr Report could be available almost instantly without subjective filtering and media spin. How many times have you heard the word "salacious" over the last two weeks?

It is ironic that a tool developed to protect our country and bolster national defenses is now being used to publicly expose our commander-in-chief. I wonder if the Internet founders ever imagined that their national defense network would be utilized in such a fashion?

The Internet can trace its early roots back to the 1957 launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik. That singular event was the wakeup call for the United States, which was seriously lagging behind the Soviet Union in the areas of science and technology. In response, the Advanced Research Projects Agency was founded as part of the Department of Defense with the sole purpose of advancing our military in the areas of science and technology.

In mid-1960, ARPA was charged with the task of developing a "bomb proof" communication system that would circumvent the traditional telephone system.

Realize this was during the height of the Cold War era when communism and nuclear war were serious threats. The telephone represented the largest available communication system at the time and was vulnerable to attack.

ARPA partnered with such prestigious think tanks as the RAND Corp. and gave birth to a digital communications system appropriately named ARPANet. At the core of this network was a new technology called Packet Switching, invented in 1963 by Paul Baran of the RAND Corp. who's often referred to as the "father of the Internet".

It's a simple concept, really. Messages are divided into small packages, each with a sender and receiver address and then sent along varying network routes, from computer to computer, until all the packets arrive safely at their destination and are eventually re-assembled.

If one or more packets are lost on the way, they can be re-sent without losing the entire message. Hence, if the enemy bombed one or more Internet "nodes", communication could still take place, as the packets would simply be re-routed to another node. When ARPANet debuted in 1969, it was a whopping network of four computers: UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.

During the 1970s and 1980s the Internet continued to grow and thrive within the narrow community of military and academic scientists. Key protocols such as Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) were established during this time and endure today.

In 1986, The National Science Foundation established five National Centers for Supercomputing Applications to link universities and research institutions not connected to ARPANet. NSF would eventually assume Internet leadership when ARPANet ceased to exist in 1990 at the end of the Cold War.

Until 1990 the Internet was clearly the domain of academicians and military strategists. Many of us knew of the "Internet", but it was cryptic in its Unix-based text language, difficult to navigate and flat in it's monochrome output. It was way beyond the realm of the general public.

Switzerland's European Center for Particle Research (CERN) developed a new set of protocols for transferring hypertext via the Internet called Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).

Documents could be written with special tags call Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) which required only mouse clicks to move from one document to another, rather than cumbersome UNIX commands. In 1993 Netscape founder Marc Andreesen, then at the University of Illinois NCSA, developed a graphic user interface called Mosaic to navigate or "browse" the HTML content on the Internet. This in turn spawned the development of the World Wide Web as a sub-network of the greater Internet.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Web has assumed its own lifeform and continues to mutate daily. Due to the explosive growth of the World Wide Web the National Science Foundation relinquished it's organizational duties in 1993 to a private company, Internet Network Information Center (InterNIC). InterNIC has no supreme authority over the Internet, however, and is mainly a clearinghouse for unique digital addresses on the Internet, called websites.

In just eight short years, the Web has become a standard method for the information exchange of all types of data including text, audio, movies and video.

Video? I guess that's what we have to look forward to next.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201 or on the Internet at http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past columns.