James Watt, Instrument Maker

[Part of a series: The Age of Steam] A New Synthesis In the eighteenth century, new lines of communication and new alliances were forming between the world of the artisan and craftsman on the one hand, and the world of the “schoolmen,” the university scholars, steeped in abstract knowledge, on the other. This convergence arguably… Continue reading James Watt, Instrument Maker

The Triumvirate: Coal, Iron, and Steam

[Part of a series: The Age of Steam] The steam engine might have amounted to relatively little if not for its two compatriots, coal and iron. Together they formed a kind of triumvirate, ruling over an industrial empire. Or perhaps an ecological metaphor is more appropriate – a symbiosis among three species, each nourishing one… Continue reading The Triumvirate: Coal, Iron, and Steam

Internet Ascendant, Part 2: Going Private and Going Public

In the summer of 1986, Senator Al Gore, Jr., of Tennessee introduced an amendment to the Congressional Act that authorized the  budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF). He called for the federal government to study the possibilities for “communications networks for supercomputers at universities and Federal research facilities.” To explain the purpose of this… Continue reading Internet Ascendant, Part 2: Going Private and Going Public

Internet Ascendant, Part 1: Exponential Growth

In 1990, John Quarterman, a networking consultant and UNIX expert, published a comprehensive survey of the state of computer networks. In a brief section on the potential future for computing, he predicted the appearance of a single global network for "electronic mail, conferencing, file transfer, and remote login, just as there is now one worldwide… Continue reading Internet Ascendant, Part 1: Exponential Growth

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 4: The Anarchists

Between roughly 1975 and 1995, access to computers accelerated much more quickly than access to computer networks. First in the United States, and then in other wealthy countries, computers became commonplace in the homes of the affluent, and nearly ubiquitous in institutions of higher education. But if users of those computers wanted to connect their… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 4: The Anarchists

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 3: The Statists

In the spring of 1981, after several smaller trials, The French telecommunications administration (Direction générale des Télécommunications, or DGT), began a large-scale videotex experiment in a region of Brittany called Ille-et-Vilaine, named after its two main rivers. This was the prelude to the full launch of the system across l'Hexagone in the following year. The… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 3: The Statists

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 2: Sowing the Wasteland

On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, newly-appointed chairman of the FCC, gave the first speech of his tenure. He spoke before the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade industry group founded in the 1920s to forward the interests of commercial radio, an organization dominated in Minow's time by the big three of ABC, CBS, and… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 2: Sowing the Wasteland

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 1: Load Factor

By the early 1980s, the roots of what we know now as the Internet had been established - its basic protocols designed and battle-tested in real use - but it remained a closed system almost entirely under the control of a single entity, the U.S. Department of Defense. Soon that would change, as it expanded… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 1: Load Factor


In their 1968 paper, "The Computer as a Communications Device," written while the ARPANET was still in development, J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor claimed that the linking of computers would not stop with individual networks. Such networks, they predicted, would merge into a "labile network of networks" that would bind a variety of "information processing… Continue reading Inter-Networking

The Computer as a Communication Device

Over the first half of the 1970s, the ecology of computer networking diversified from its original ARPANET ancestry along several dimensions. ARPANET users discovered a new application, electronic mail, which became the dominant activity on the network. Entrepreneurs spun-off their own ARPANET variants to serve commercial customers. And researchers from Hawaii to l'Hexagone developed new… Continue reading The Computer as a Communication Device

ARPANET, Part 3: The Subnet

With ARPANET, Robert Taylor and Larry Roberts intended to connect many different research institutions, each hosting its own computer, for whose hardware and software it was wholly responsible. The hardware and software of the network itself, however, lay in a nebulous middle realm, belonging to no particular site. Over the course of the years 1967-1968,… Continue reading ARPANET, Part 3: The Subnet