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

ARPANET, Part 1: The Inception

By the mid-1960s, the first time-sharing systems had already recapitulated the early history of the first telephone exchanges. Entrepreneurs built those exchanges as a means to allow subscribers to summon services such as a taxi, a doctor, or the fire brigade. But those subscribers soon found their local exchange just as useful for communicating and… Continue reading ARPANET, Part 1: The Inception

The Unraveling, Part 2

After authorizing private microwave networks in the Above 890 decision, the FCC might have hoped that they could leave those networks penned in their quiet little corner of the market and forget about them. But this quickly proved impossible. New challengers continued to press against the existent regulatory framework. They proposed a variety of new ways to… Continue reading The Unraveling, Part 2

Discovering Interactivity

The very first electronic computers were idiosyncratic, one-off research installations.1 But as they entered the marketplace, organizations very quickly assimilated them into a pre-existing culture of data-processing - one in which all data and processes were represented as stacks of punched cards. Herman Hollerith developed the first tabulator capable of reading and counting data based… Continue reading Discovering Interactivity

One System, Universal Service?

The Internet was born in a distinctly American telecommunications environment -- the United States treated telegraph and telephone providers very differently than the rest of the world -- and there is good reason to believe that this environment played a formative role in its development, shaping the character of the Internet to come. Let us,… Continue reading One System, Universal Service?

The Backbone: Introduction

In the early 1970s, Larry Roberts approached AT&T, the vast American telecommunications monopoly, with an intriguing offer. At the time, Roberts was director of  the computing division of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a relatively young organization within the Department of Defense that was dedicated to long-term, blue-sky research. Over the previous five years, Roberts… Continue reading The Backbone: Introduction

The Transistor, Part 3: Endless Reinvention

For over a hundred years the analog dog wagged the digital tail. The effort to extend the reach of our senses - sight, hearing, even (after a manner of speaking) touch, drove engineers and scientists to search for better components for telegraph, telephone, radio and radar equipment. It was a happy accident that this also opened… Continue reading The Transistor, Part 3: Endless Reinvention

The Transistor, Part 2: Out Of The Crucible

The crucible of war prepared the ground for the transistor. The state of technical knowledge about semiconductor devices advanced enormously from 1939 to 1945. There was one simple reason: radar. The single most important technology of the war, its applications included detecting incoming air raids, locating submarines, guiding nightfighters to their targets, and aiming anti-aircraft… Continue reading The Transistor, Part 2: Out Of The Crucible

The Transistor, Part 1: Groping in the Dark

The road to a solid-state switch was a long and complex one. It began with the discovery that certain materials behaved oddly with respect to electricity - differently than any existing theory said they ought to. What followed is a story that reveals the "scienceification" and "instutionalization" of technology in the twentieth century. Dilettantes, amateurs… Continue reading The Transistor, Part 1: Groping in the Dark

The Electronic Computers, Part 4: The Electronic Revolution

We have now recounted, in succession, each of the first three attempts to build a digital, electronic computer: The Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) conceived by John Atanasoff, the British Colossus projected headed by Tommy Flowers, and the ENIAC built at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School. All three projects were effectively independent creations. Though John Mauchly, the motive force… Continue reading The Electronic Computers, Part 4: The Electronic Revolution