ARPANET: Precursor of the Internet

Before it transformed the modern world, what would become the internet was just a small group of experimental researchers, a handful of computers, and few hundred miles of phone line.


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In the 1960s, there were computers, and even local area networks (LANs), but those networks were mainly incapable of communicating with one another. There was the problem of transmitting the information in the first place, but even if an exchange between networks were possible, their languages were often mutually unintelligible.


These problems also confronted scientists at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA. ARPA was started in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, with a mandate to ensure the United States stayed ahead of the technology curve, militarily and otherwise.

The Idea Forms

In 1963, ARPA hired J.C.R. Licklider, "Computing’s Johnny Appleseed," away from MIT in order to head up its computer division. "Lick" had previously theorized an "Intergalactic Network" that would link computers around the country and allow them to share info and capabilities. "Lick" brought aboard a number of colleagues at the forefront of computer development to realize the vision.

Designs and Solutions

Lick left in 1964, but one of his successors, Bob Taylor, secured funding for what was to be called ARPANET and set his team working to create it. These researches led to the advent of the basic structure of internet communications, including hosts, servers and what we now call routers.

Packet Switching

One of the key discoveries behind ARPANET became the basis for modern communications: packet switching. The basic idea is to break information into "bits" and direct these "packets" to their intended recipients by routers, which would act like traffic cops for the information.

The concept developed independently on opposite sides of the Atlantic. While the ARPA-employed scientists drew the broad strokes, Donald Davies at the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory was figuring out the details, without even knowing the project existed – until ARPA hired him.

The First Nodes

By 1969, the key players and concepts were in place, and the time had come to get ARPANET up and running. A team worked at UCLA ("Node 1") to create the "protocols" that would be necessary for the computers to communicate, while three other nodes were prepared at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah.

ARAPNET Goes Online, and then Public

On October 29, 1969, a connection was successfully established between UCLA and SRI: the birth of what would become the internet. Soon new nodes were being added regularly, as the hardware and protocols continued to be improved, especially after the microprocessor debuted in 1971. Three years to the month after ARPANET became functional it was publicly unveiled at the International Conference on Computer Communication, to broad acclaim.

The End of ARPANET, the Beginning of the Internet

The network continued expanding over the next years and inspiring other networks, but by 1977 there was little reason for ARPA (now DARPA, adding "Defense" to the acronym) to continue overseeing the project. The agency relinquished control in 1978, leaving the net to "an array of boards and task forces."

At that point, though, there was no turning back. Developments like the standardization of domain names and protocols throughout the ’80s led to the net having 300,000 hosts in dozens of countries by the time ARPANET formally ceased existing in 1990. ARPANET was dead, but the internet was just coming alive.

Jacob Briggs is a freelance writer who focuses on technology, gadgets, gadget accessories, cell phones, computers and other associated topics; tech lovers looking for helpful information on SEO and social media should visit What to do Media.

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