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A Brief History of the Future—The Origins of the Internet

A Brief History of the Future—The Origins of the Internet

by John Naughton

Phoenix, London

Call No. 004.678  NAU-T

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This is a well-written book by a well-known Irish academic and journalist, which charts the growth of the Internet from a 1950s military project to the pervasive networking infrastructure that dominates the IT world today. It is relevant to the readership of this journal because it charts the growth of the technology that underpins the IP world—and it gives a sound understanding of the culture and approach that led to the development of the Internet as we know it.
Naughton takes the reader from the inception of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) through most of the major developments such as packet switching, mail, TCP/IP, and the Web, not only covering the technology, but also providing insights into the background of the Internet pioneers and the political environment.
The book is divided into three major sections, the first of which is largely concerned with scene setting and is aimed at bringing those less familiar with the subject area up to speed. In the first chapter, Naughton likens the evolution of the "Net" to that of amateur radio, moving on in succeeding chapters to cover basic technology and to provide some perception of scale and rate of growth.
The second part of the book covers the growth of the Internet up to the early 1990s. This starts by looking at the origins of the ARPA project, noting the influence of MIT and important figures such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Weiner, and J.C.R Licklider. Naughton describes how ARPA was initiated and its relationship with NASA and academia, highlighting the desire to provide time-sharing systems and the breakthrough concept of the Interface Message Processor (IMP) as a solution to the "n-squared" problem. This is followed by two chapters that discuss the adoption of packet switching as the underlying technology, following its initial proposal by Paul Baran and further development by Donald Davies’ team in the UK.
Naughton next examines how e-mail became the first "killer application" that drove up Internet usage, even telling the reader where the use of the ubiquitous "@" symbol comes from. He then considers the maturing network during the 1970s, discussing the formulation of the first Request For Comments (RFCs), the development of the gateway concept, and the evolution of TCP/IP. The discussion leaves the network area, concentrating on the evolution of UNIX and its impact, stressing the role of AT&T’s regulatory situation. Then Naughton considers how this accelerated the development of USENET.
In a chapter called "The Great Unwashed," Naughton discusses the popularization of computing and networking, through the availability of the PC and the evolution of readily available file transfer tools such as X-Modem and the creation of bulletin board systems such as fidonet. He then considers the development of Open Source, telling the story of Linux and its derivation from MINIX.
The third section of the book deals with the emergence of the World Wide Web, tracing it back through the original ideas of Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson, to its ultimate development by Berners-Lee at CERN. He links this to the subsequent development of Mosaic at NCSA and shows the dramatic impact this had on Internet growth.
Naughton concludes his book by looking at the prognosis for the "Net." Here he refuses to try to predict the future; instead he analyzes the forces that will drive the future of the Internet and discusses their impact in the past and hence their potential impact. At the end of the book, he provides notes and references for each chapter, a short section on the sources he consulted, and a comprehensive glossary.
I found this book provided excellent insights into the development of the Internet, adding a lot of perspective to the engineering field I currently work in. Naughton places appropriate emphasis on the technical, personal, commercial, and political factors that have steered its evolution. He is not afraid to disturb the reader’s preconceptions by looking at things from unusual angles, and he emphasises the importance of timing. This is apparent when he points out that according to many sources, most of the important inventions around the Internet have come from graduate students, rather than the professors they work for. He similarly recounts the story that AT&T turned down the opportunity to run the "Net" in the early 1970s and reflects the view that if the Internet had not existed we could not invent it now.
This is an excellent read (it was nominated for the Aventis Prize in 2000), which helps the reader understand the How, When, Where, and Why of the Internet’s development. It covers most of the major milestones in the evolution of our discipline and is very well-written.
The Author
John Naughton is Professor of Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University, and he writes a weekly column in The Observer Business Section, covering important developments and trends in the IT industry. He describes himself as a "Control Engineer with a strong interest in systems analysis and computer networks" and is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.


Reviewed by

Edward Smith, BT, UK


The Internet Protocol Journal – Volume 8, Number 2

Filed under: Book of the week, ,


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