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The Overlook Press
Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet

Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet

by John Naughton


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The Internet is the most remarkable achievement of humankind since the pyramids. A millennium from now, historians will look back at it and marvel that a people equipped with such clumsy tools succeeded in creating such a leviathan.

Yet even as the Net pervades our lives, we begin to take it for granted. Many have lost the capacity for wonder. Most of us have no idea where the Internet came from, how it works, or who created it and why. And even fewer have any idea what it means for society and the future.

John Naughton has written a warm and passionate book whose heroes are the visionaries who laid the foundations of the postmodern world. A Brief History of the Future celebrates the engineers and scientists who implemented their dreams in hardware and software and explains the values and ideas that drove them. Although its subject seems technical, the book in fact is a highly personal account. John Naughton writes about the Net the way Nick Hornby writes about soccer -- as a part of life, and as a key influence on his own voyage from solitary child to established academic and writer. A Brief History of the Future is an intimate celebration of vision and altruism, ingenuity and determination, and above all of the power of ideas to transform the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585670321
Publisher: The Overlook Press
Publication date: 06/26/2000
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.36(w) x 9.38(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Radio days


       A book-lined study, late at night. The house, to which the study is an extension, is quiet. Everyone except for a middle-aged man is asleep. He is sitting at a desk, peering at a computer screen, occasionally moving a mouse which runs on a mat on the desktop and clicking the button which sits on the back of this electronic rodent.

    On the screen a picture appears, built up in stages, line by line. First it looks like a set of coloured bars. Then some more are added, and gradually the image becomes sharper and clearer until a colour picture appears in the centre of the screen. It is a cityscape. In the foreground are honey-coloured buildings and a solitary high-rise block; in the distance is the sea. Away to the left is a suspension bridge, wreathed in fog. It is in fact a panoramic view of San Francisco, snapped by a camera fixed on the roof of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. The bridge is the Golden Gate. Underneath the photograph is some text explaining that it was taken three minutes ago and will be updated every five minutes. The man sits there patiently and waits, and in a few minutes the image flickers briefly and is indeed rebuilt before his eyes. Nothing much has changed, except that the camera has moved slightly. It has begun its slow pan rightwards, towards the Bay Bridge.

    And as the picture builds the solitary man smiles quietly, for to him this is a kind of miracle.


Another room, anothertime. No book-lined study this, but a spartan bedroom. There are two single beds, covered in blankets and cheap eiderdowns. The floor is covered in linoleum, the window by a cheap unlined curtain with a floral pattern. By the wall stands a chest of drawers. The only decoration is a picture of the Sacred Heart. No books of any description can be seen.

    It's late. Somewhere, in another part of the house, a man can be heard snoring. Between the beds is a table, on which sits a large radio with a brown Bakelite shell, an illuminated dial, a large tuning knob. The radio is turned towards one of the beds, in which lies a young boy who is staring intently at the dial and slowly turning the knob. The light from the dial illuminates his face. Through the ventilation slots in the back of the radio can be seen the glow of thermionic valves.

    The boy is entirely focused on the sounds coming from the loudspeaker of the radio. Mostly, these are strange whistling noises, howls, bursts of static, occasional frantic sequences of Morse code. He continues gingerly to rotate the knob and eventually stops when a distant voice, speaking in English, suddenly issues from the radio's grille. The voice waxes and wanes and echoes oddly. It sounds like someone speaking through a very long pipe which is continually flexing. But the boy is transfixed by it for this is what he has been searching for — a voice from another continent, another world. He smiles quietly, for to him this is a kind of miracle.

I am that man, and was once that boy. What connects the two is a lifelong fascination — call it obsession if you like — with communication, with being able to make links to other places, other cultures, other worlds. The roots of this obsession have often puzzled me. I am not — never have been — a gregarious person. Quite the opposite. I was a solitary child and my classmates at school and university always thought of me as a loner. I was never enamoured of the noisy solidarity of pub or club. So why was I possessed of a desire to make contact with distant places?

    It can partly be explained by the start I had in life. I grew up on what seemed at the time like the edge of the world — in a remote part of rural Ireland, in a household with few books, magazines or television. The only newspapers which ever crossed the threshold were the Irish Press, the organ of Eamonn de Valera's Fianna Fail party, and the Irish Catholic, an equally pious propaganda sheet for the Vatican. The only books were a few Reader's Digest 'condensed' books plus an edition of Newnes Pictorial Encyclopaedia bound in a red leatherette material which matched the upholstery of the household's two armchairs. (Only the rich and sophisticated had three-piece suites in those days.) Films were a no-go area; although there was a cinema in the town, it screened only what the parish priest approved, and even then was off-limits to us, because my mother regarded Hollywood as an agent of Satan. Our household was thus what Al Gore would call an 'information-poor' environment.

    It's hard now to imagine what life was like then. Foreign travel was unheard of, for example. Apart from those who emigrated to Britain or the United States, virtually nobody we knew had ever been abroad, and those who had were invariably people who had made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Nobody in our circle ever went overseas on holiday, and no foreign languages were taught in the schools I attended — with the exception of Latin, no doubt because it was useful for those who went on to the priesthood. We lived in a closed society which thought of itself as self-sufficient, the embodiment of the ancient Republican slogan, Sinn Fein — Irish for 'ourselves alone'.

    There was, however, one chink of light in the suffocating gloom — the radio (which we called the wireless; 'radio' was a posh word, unthinkable in our circle, uttered only by those who had lunch at the time we had dinner). It was by modern standards a huge apparatus powered by valves — which is why it took some time to warm up — and a 'magic eye' tuning indicator — a greenish glass circle which winked at you as the signal waxed or waned.

    The tuning knob was a marvellous affair. The spindle went through a hole in the glass of the dial. On the other side, it drove a large metal wheel to which a cord was attached. As the wheel turned, a metal bar hanging from the cord moved horizontally to indicate the wavelength of the signal currently being received. A small lamp provided a backlight and, emerging through the ventilation slots at the back of the device, threw weird shadows on my bedroom wall.

    The legends etched on the dial face were marvellous. There were some numerical markings, but generally stations were identified by the location of the transmitter. Thus the BBC Long Wave programme (source of Radio Newsreel and Dan Dare) was 'Droitwich'; Netherlands Radio was 'Hilversum'; Radio Luxembourg was, reasonably enough, 'Luxembourg' and Radio Eireann, our native broadcaster, was 'Athlone'. On the long-wave band I remember Minsk and Kalundbourg, Ankara on 1,700 metres and Brasov on 1,950. On medium wave there were stations based in Bordeaux, Stockholm, Rennes, Vienna and somewhere called Mühlacker. To my impressionable mind, these locations took on ludicrously glamorous connotations. I can still remember the day, decades later, when I stumbled on Droitwich on the A5 and discovered what a mundane place it really was. But back in the 1950s it seemed as exciting to me as Paris or Berlin or Istanbul.

    The best thing about our wireless, though, was that it had a short-wave band. This was a source of endless fascination to me, because it meant that even with this primitive device one could listen to the world.

    At first I couldn't understand how it worked. Why was reception so much better at night? Why it was so infuriatingly variable? I asked my father, who looked evasive and said it was something to do with 'the whachamacallit sphere' (he always called complicated things the whachamacallit), but this gave me enough of a steer to go to the local Carnegie Library and start digging. In due course I discovered that he was referring to the ionosphere — a layer of charged particles high up at the edge of the earth's atmosphere which acts as a kind of reflector for radio waves of certain frequencies. The reason short-wave radio could travel such vast distances was that it used the ionosphere to bounce signals round the world — which was why radio hams in Latin America or Australia could sometimes be heard by a young boy on the western seaboard of Ireland. Signals from such distant shores were more likely to get through at night because then the ionosphere was higher and transmission over longer distances was possible.

    I was spellbound by this discovery of how technology could piggy-back on a natural phenomenon to propel low-power signals through immense distances. But most of all I was entranced by the idea of short-wave radio. For this was a technology which belonged not to great corporations or governments, but to people. It was possible, my father explained, to obtain a licence to operate your own short-wave radio station. And all over the globe people held such licences which enabled them to sit in their back rooms and broadcast to the whole world. And to me.

My father was simultaneously pleased and threatened by my interest in short-wave radio. It was something he himself had been passionately interested in as a young man. But even then I sensed that he also felt undermined by my youthful enthusiasm. I remember the look of alarm on his face when I returned triumphantly from the library having figured out the secret of the ionosphere. Later — much later — I realised that my naive obsession forced him to acknowledge that he had never managed to carry his own passion to its logical conclusion and become a radio ham. He thought this made him look a failure in the eyes of his eldest son.

    In fact, his failure moved me more to frustration than to pity. I was mad simply because Da's non-possession of an amateur radio operator's licence meant that I was deprived of an opportunity to participate in this magical process. Listening to short-wave transmissions was bliss; but to be able to send them would be absolute heaven.

    Da's interest in radio had been awakened in the 1930s, when he was an ambitious young postal clerk in Ballina, County Mayo. He had been trained in Morse (because that was the way telegrams were transmitted in rural Ireland) and to his dying day retained a wonderful fluency in that staccato lingo. It was from him, for example, that I learned that Morse operators do not listen — as Boy Scouts do — for the dots and dashes of each letter. Instead they listen for patterns and rhythms. He illustrated this by teaching me the rhythm of CQ — the international signal which asks 'Is anybody out there listening?' The Boy Scout version is dash—dot—dash—dash, dash—dash—dot—dash. But my father sang it as dahdeedahdah, dahdahdeedah and immediately I understood what he meant.

    My father had left school at sixteen and gained entry to the fledgling Irish Free State's postal service by doing a competitive examination. He was highly intelligent and quietly ambitious, but these were no guarantees of preferment in the civil service. By the standards of people from his background, he was doing well to have become a postal clerk in his twenties. His position was prized because it was secure. It was, his mother crowed, a job for life. He was working for the government. But it was poorly paid.

    Early on in his time in Ballina, Da became interested in amateur radio. In those days a candidate for an operator's licence had several obstacles to overcome. First he had to pass two examinations — one in Morse, the other in the physics and mathematics of wireless propagation — stuff about frequency and capacitance and inductance and Ohm's Law and resistances in series and parallel. The other obstacles were less formal, but no less forbidding to a man in Da's position. The aspiring broadcaster had to have suitable premises (universally called, for some reason, a 'shack'), together with sufficient land to set up a substantial antenna, and enough money to purchase the necessary kit.

    Of these, the only hurdle Da had been able to overcome was the first — his Morse was more than adequate. But his truncated schooling left him terrified of the theoretical examination. As a young bachelor living in digs (a rented room in a small family house) he could not have a suitable shack. And his wages as a clerk would not have run to any fancy equipment for, like most men of his background, he sent much of it home to his parents in Connemara.

    As a result, he never managed to indulge his passion for radio and instead had to content himself with looking over the shoulders of others more affluent than himself. Often the quid pro quo was that he taught Morse to these rich kids. In particular, there was one chap, the heir of a prosperous Ballina merchant family, who had obtained a licence in the 1930s and with whom Da had become genuinely friendly.

    My father never told me any of this, of course. But he once did something which explained everything. It happened on a summer's evening in the 1950s when I was about ten. We were back in Ballina, on holiday, and he suddenly asked me if I would like to go and see Ian Clarke's shack. Knowing that Mr Clarke was a licensed ham I clambered breathlessly into the car and we drove out of the town along the banks of the Moy, eventually turning through some large gates into a winding, tree-lined drive which swept round to reveal one of those glorious Georgian boxes which were the Irish Ascendancy's main contribution to civilisation.

    I had never seen a house like this up close, let alone been inside one. It had double doors, a marbled hall two storeys high and a glorious curving staircase. The drawing room had colossal windows which seemed to stretch from floor to ceiling. One set opened on to a manicured lawn which led down to the river. There was not one, not two but three settees arranged in an open rectangle around a coffee table. While I stood stupefied by these surroundings, a middle-aged, affable man appeared, greeted me solemnly and got my father a drink.

    After a while, he turned to me and said, 'Your Daddy tells me you're interested in radio. Would you like to see my set-up?' 'Yes, please, Mr Clarke,' I burbled, terrified in case I should make a fool of myself. 'Well, come on then.' He led the way out of the room and up that great staircase. I remember how quiet the house seemed, and how our feet made no sound on the carpet. We turned into a high-ceilinged room with a large window. There was a desk with a microphone, some books and a notepad on it. To the right of the desk was a rack of equipment garnished with lights, dials, knobs and switches.

    He gave me a cursory explanation of the kit, then switched the various units on — power supply, receiver, transmitter, amplifier. One by one the lights came on. Then he sat down at the desk, made an entry in a log, twiddled a knob and spoke into the mike. 'CQ, CQ, CQ, this is ...' and here he gave his call-sign — '... calling.' He repeated this a few times while I held my breath. And then faintly, but distinctly, came an answering voice. An amateur radio operator somewhere in Scandinavia. He and Mr Clarke then had a conversation, probably fairly banal, and involving the ritual exchange of information about their respective technical set-ups, but all I remember of it was that he mentioned at one point that he had 'a young friend with him who hoped one day to become a ham himself', at which point I nearly passed out.

    I remember little else of that evening, save that my father and Mr Clarke talked for ages about the past and of what they used to do in their bachelor days. Later, driving home in the dark, I asked, 'Da, is Mr Clarke very rich?' He replied laconically, 'Well, he doesn't want for a bob or two anyway,' and I finally understood why my father had never obtained his licence.

    Why radio? Why did my childhood obsession not lead to pen pals, language courses, foreign travel? I think the immediacy and scope of the medium were the key attractions. It put you in touch with what was happening — right now — on the other side of the world. And (if you had that magic licence) it put you in charge of the connection process.

    Of course the humble telephone provided exactly the same facility. But to say that is to ignore the realities of my boyhood. In the world in which I grew up, the telephone was anything but humble. My family did not have one. Most families we knew didn't. Making a phone call was a big deal. You had to be quite grown up to be allowed simply to answer the damn thing. Most people would send a child 'on a message' rather than make a local call. And nobody, but nobody, in my parents' circle ever made an international call. A 'trunk call' to Dublin was about the extent of it, and then only when there was a crisis of some sort — a death or a heart attack or, occasionally, a birth.

    But radio, radio — that was free, and available, and much, much more exotic. For some years — I guess between the ages of nine and fourteen — I went through the time-honoured phases of an obsession. I pored over the magazine Wireless World, saved up pocket money to buy resistors and capacitors and diodes and crystals and transformers and induction coils and loudspeakers from smudged catalogues of radio spares, constructed radios of varying degrees of complexity and with varying degrees of success (probably because I never really mastered the art of clean and reliable soldering). For a time I hung around the only radio dealer in town, a man with an exotic past which included serving in the merchant navy. But in the end — and unlike the true fanatic — I lost interest in the technology and returned to my first love: the content, those tinny, fading, interference-ridden voices from other worlds.

The comparison of the Net with the early days of radio works not just on a personal level. The first radio enthusiasts were much ridiculed by the chattering classes of the day. They were seen as cranks with their weird equipment — crystals, antennae, coils, cat's whiskers, horns — and laughed at because of their willingness to spend long hours waiting to hear the crackling hiss of a distant broadcast. What made them seem even more absurd in the eyes of their tormentors was the fact that there was 'nothing much on the radio anyway', certainly nothing worth listening to.

    Much the same is said about today's Net enthusiasts. They are ridiculed as socially challenged nerds or 'anoraks' huddled in bedrooms surrounded by equipment and glowing screens. Their willingness to persevere in the teeth of transmission delays and the limitations of low-bandwidth telephone lines is derided by those who describe the World Wide Web as the 'World Wide Wait'. The notion that any adult person would sit patiently while a low-resolution colour picture slowly chugs its way through the Net seems absurd to those who are far too busy with important matters like watching television or reviewing tomorrow's list of engagements in their personal organisers. The 'plug-ins' by which Webheads set such store — those programs which extend the capability of browsers like Netscape to handle digital audio, compressed movies and other arcane data streams — seem as weird as the cat's whiskers of yesteryear. And, of course, there is always the refrain about there being 'nothing worth while on the Internet'.

    So it is deeply ironic that one of the most evocative uses of the Net is as a medium for radio broadcasts. My national radio station, for example, is RTE in Ireland. Although it broadcasts in stereo from the Astra satellite, I cannot receive it in Cambridge because I do not have a satellite dish. I like to listen to the news in Irish because it keeps my knowledge of the language from atrophying. There must be quite a few like me in the 70-million-strong Irish diaspora dispersed all over the globe.

    Now, through a terrific piece of software technology called RealAudio, I can listen to the news in Irish no matter where I am in the world. What happens is that RTE puts the daily bulletins on a computer running special software which turns it into a Real Audio server. If I wish to listen to a bulletin, I click on the hotlink to it on a Web page and, after a short interval, the rich sound of a native speaker comes rolling out of the speakers on either side of my computer. The quality is sometimes relatively poor — about the same as AM signals. Sometimes the transmission breaks up and distorts, just as those long-distant broadcasts of my youth did, But it still seems like a small miracle.

    It's funny how touching this wonder can be. Last year, my eldest son was doing a project on the poetry of Robert Frost. His task was to make a film about 'The Road Not Taken' and he dropped in to ask if I knew where he could get his hands on a recording of Frost reading the poem. My first reaction was to telephone the BBC. But then I suggested — with nothing more than a mild sense of optimism — that he try hunting for it on the Web. In a few minutes he had found a scholarly archive somewhere in the United States with recordings of Frost, and shortly after that we both sat stunned, listening to the poet's gravelly voice, distorted by compression and data corruption, but still speaking directly to our hearts. And I thought: this is what the early days of radio must have been like.

Table of Contents

Part IWonderment
1Radio days3
2The digital beanstalk13
3A terrible beauty?25
Part IIA brief history of the future
6Hot potatoes92
8Packet post118
9Where it's @140
10Casting the Net151
11The poor man's ARPANET168
12The Great Unwashed184
13The gift economy193
Part IIIOnly connect ...
14Web dreams209
16Home sweet home253
Epilogue: The wisdom of the Net264
A note on sources299

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