9 February 2010

The Internet – I Was There At The Birth

There’s a lot of talk about ‘the internet’ at the moment - the amazing advance it’s brought to information dissemination and learning. There’s even talk about ‘awarding’ the Internet the Nobel Peace Prize although I’m not sure who they would give the award to – Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the ‘inventor’ of the Internet, possibly?

First of all, let’s just put the Internet into historical perspective from my point of view.

Back in 1979, not long after I joined IBM, I took some senior executives of a large Glasgow company down to IBM’s Head Office on the south coast of England. They had heard about this new thing called e-mail. I duly flew them down to Havant and we witnessed a guy sending a PROFs message to Paris and waited excitedly for the reply which came through a few minutes later. Apparently this was a huge advance over the then ‘telex’ method of sending and receiving messages – anyone remember typing out their messages and taking them to the ‘telex’ room?

Well, e-mail took off as we all know and I feel privileged to have been there right at the start.

A few years later in BT, I was sent to CERN in Geneva (the place where they are trying to smash atomic particles into each other – see original blog below) and was told they wanted to move enormous amounts of data around the world. Knowing BT’s network wasn’t up to the task, I did as best I could and then left. You can imagine my astonishment and disappointment when I realized that Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN when I did my call and only months previously had made CERN the first web site on the internet. If only BT's network had been just that little bit bigger!


Fast forward a few years and the internet is now well and truly established but I still don’t really understand it so I ask one of my technical guys to explain it to me. As it turns out, it’s all very simple (just computers around the world interlinked with telephone wires) and something which had, in theory, been around for quite a while, albeit in a different form.

For years, whilst boffins in CERN developed the concept of the internet, we’d desperately tried to sell a service called EDI (Electronic data Interchange) where companies would send each other large files of data over communication lines. Amazingly, despite the fact that it saved enormous amounts of clerical effort, companies just did not like the fact that another company’s data would be entering their computer systems and so EDI basically died a death before it was even born.

And so the internet was announced to the world after a way was developed to interconnect and ‘protect’ companies’ computer systems. Today, we take it for granted but was I really there all along the way?

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