WHERE DID THE NET COME FROM, DADDY?
WHERE WIZARDS STAY UP LATE
The Origins of the Internet
By Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon
Simon & Schuster -- 304pp -- $24
The Internet and its multimedia wing, the World Wide Web, have added countless new terms to the English language. But none has more currency than ``Web years.'' A derivation of ``dog years,'' the idea is that the Web is changing so rapidly that a month or two in the Web business is like a year in real time.
That's why Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, could not be more timely. The Internet is clearly the biggest technological development since the personal computer, and its main impact is yet to be felt. Already, though, its early history has been largely ignored in the rush to understand this week's breakthrough. It's important to provide an accurate record--especially while most of the Net's founders are still around to provide it.
Countless publications, for instance, have somberly reported that the Internet was first designed to survive a nuclear war. This, the book insists, is untrue. The Internet's ancestor was funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and its technological underpinnings grew out of research on how a network could survive even if parts of it perished. But Hafner, a former BUSINESS WEEK staffer and now a contributing editor at Newsweek, and her husband, Lyon, an assistant to the president of the University of Texas at Austin, set the record straight: The effort to link university research computers was motivated by purely scientific aims along with the hope of saving a few bucks.
Where Wizards Stay Up Late focuses largely on the least-known period of the Internet, its beginnings in the 1960s. Most important, it provides insight into early researchers, including those at ARPA, the consulting firm Bolt Beranek & Newman, and others, who laid the foundation for the Internet long before it was called that.
There's the early ARPA leader J.C.R. Licklider, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist who in 1960 put forward the radical notion that computers--then strictly room-size behemoths employed for number-crunching--eventually could interact much more intimately with people, tackle a range of problems, and eventually transform society. Licklider inspired later ARPA leaders such as Bob Taylor, who in 1966 first suggested linking research computers around the country with the small test network that became ARPANET, the Internet's precursor.
Around the same time, an ocean apart, RAND Corp. researcher Paul Baran and British National Physical Laboratory physicist Donald W. Davies each independently came up with the way to make this work: A ``distributed'' network, not dependent on one central computer, would break up messages into ``packets'' that could then find the fastest route to their destination, where they would be reassembled into readable form. (This, in time, would allow the Net to grow exponentially.) And Frank Heart, a BBN project manager, rallied engineers to build the ARPANET's key routing computers on deadline.
Unlike the creators of the personal- computer industry, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, none of these guys are household names even though the impact of their work ultimately could prove greater. The main reason, according to Hafner and Lyon, is that the Net was conceived and created in a remarkably collegial atmosphere, lacking ego clashes and the raw greed that seems to drive some of today's Netrepreneurs.
While that was good for the Net, it makes for fairly dry storytelling. There simply isn't much drama in most of the book's yarns, which revolve around solving knotty technical problems. But Hafner and Lyon do a good job of making that technology understandable. In explaining how the Internet would convey data across many different types of computers and transmission media, for instance, they draw an ace analogy to the shipping industry, in which standard containers can carry all kinds of merchandise on trucks, trains, and ships.
The authors make up for the lack of drama with fascinating glimpses of lost opportunities. IBM and Control Data Corp., for instance, declined chances to build the first network. AT&T also shunned a later chance to run it as a monopoly service, figuring the whole idea wouldn't work. And despite being given first crack at operating an E-mail network, the U.S. Postal Service decided not to pursue it.
The only serious shortcoming of Where Wizards Stay Up Late is that neither the authors nor their subjects venture much of an opinion on either the present or the future. The Net promises to reach so deeply into society that some guesses about the future--especially from its founders--might have provided a bit of guidance for how it needs to change as it evolves. The collegiality of the Net, for instance, may be coming back to haunt it: Its multiplying constituents can't agree on how the Net should grow, leaving it in danger of gridlock.
And clearly, there's a lot more to say about the Internet. The World Wide Web appears only once, in the book's epilogue, though it has become the focus of efforts to expand the Net into a full-fledged medium and center for commerce. Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen, whose respective inventions of the Web and Web-browser software have transformed computing, each rate only a single mention. But even as the Web years fly by, there's still time to tell the more recent history. For now, Where Wizards Stay Up Late is a fine start.
By Robert D. Hof
Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.