4. E=MC2 = TCP/IP
One event triggered the birth of the Internet – the Atomic Bomb. Well, I suppose you can stretch it and include WWII but in reality, Da Bomb was the real catalyst and it tells us a lot about the realities which have shaped our contemporary history, especially when we dig into what this assertion really means.
I can hear you gasping as you read and thinking “where does this guy get off making an outrageous statement like this!” But think about it; the first computers were developed largely to carry out the immense calculations necessary – that if done the traditional way – would have taken years if not centuries to complete. Virtually all these calculations concerned a couple of things: The mathematics needed to build Da Bomb that wiped out Hiroshima and later, the ballistics calculations that were necessary to deliver Da Bomb on the end of a missile. Okay, in the 1930s, guys like Alan Turing were working on the foundations of computing especially as it related to encryption but it had its basis in mathematics.
Where were most of these processes carried out? In universities and related institutions across the US where the physicists and mathematicians were based and who made the entire enterprise possible. Enter the 1960s and the Cold War is really heating up. Institutes of higher education [sic] were now crucial components of the Cold War, with much of the innovation that led to the silicon chip, software and hardware innovations and whole host of other, basic inventions being made at a variety of institutions across the country. Virtually all of these institutions were funded not only by the US Dept of Defense [sic] but also by the large weapons and increasingly, communications corporations like Bell/AT&T, Motorola, Ford, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Boeing.
The problem was, all of the research was dependent on all the other research. It needed not only to be ‘joined together’ but the researchers needed to share ideas and do it essentially in ‘real time’. In reality this was and still is, a vast collective effort, that the Soviets should have have completely understood but clearly didn’t. How to unite all this research together, that was the major problem.
Enter a bunch of ‘nerds and geeks’, students at places like Stanford, Berkeley and MIT who solved the problem and pretty well invented the PC at the same time: Connect all the computers together via the telephone network. Enter the Leased Line and later still, the satellite and you have not only a national but international communications network. When TCP/IP was invented, not only did we have the necessary physical infrastructure (telephone networks) but a common language that all computers could use that let them ‘talk’ to each other. Most of the basics were in place by the early 1970s.
As a matter of fact, the PC got invented almost by accident (IBM rejected the idea outright when first approached). After all, IBM made its money out building massive mainframe machines and then leasing them to institutions, it didn’t know diddly squat about PCs. It actually made most of its money out of keeping the bloody things running, hence it wasn’t interested at all in the PC, not until the Apple Macintosh hit the market in March 1984 and only then did it wake up.
The rest, as they say, is history. As I’ve pointed out before in these columns, chance or serendipity seemed to have played a major role in the birth of the IT revolution. Yet, looking back on what is only 40-50 years, it all seems inevitable doesn’t it?
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