IBM 360 Computer

Before the web: a history of internet communications

Today is “Internaut Day”, marking the 23rd anniversary of the World Wide Web’s public unveiling. While working at CERN in 1991, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented “hypertext” – virtual content with embedded links to other text – and revolutionised the way we use computers.

CERN has played a prominent role in the history of the web: the world’s first website can still be visited at info.cern.ch, while the first image uploaded to the web in 1992 was of CERN’s doo-wop girl band, Les Horribles Cernettes, (their acronym being “LHC” is just an eerie coincidence – the Large Hadron Collider wouldn’t be proposed for another six years).

Les Horribles Cernettes

CERN: making us question what public science funding actually goes towards since 1992.

Though “the web” and “the internet” have become are nearly virtually synonymous these days, they mean quite different things, and – no offense to Sir Tim intended – digital communications and internet culture existed long before the web.

ARPANET
The internet as we know it today traces its history back to the US Department of Defence’s Advanced Research Projects Agency’s network, launched in 1969. The first message, sent on the 29th of October that year from a computer in UCLA to one in Stanford, was intended to read “login”; however, a crash meant that only the first two letters were sent. Lo (and behold): internet communication had arrived.

Email
It may come as a surprise to learn that the concept of email is even older than the internet. During the 1960s, multiple users would log on to the huge mainframes used by universities and research institutes in order to  send virtual messages to each other. The first email sent between different networked computers, however, was over ARPANET in late 1971. Unfortunately, the exact message was not recorded:

“The first message of any substance was a message announcing the availability of network email. The exact content is unknown, but it gave instructions about using the at sign to separate the user’s name from his host computer name.”

BBS
On the 16th of February, 1978, the Computerized Bulletin Board System was launched by Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss. It allowed users to dial in (computers in those days had phone numbers, not URLs) and post messages. For the first time, normal people (well, those that could afford computers in the 70s) could chat to other normal (well, those that understood what was going on) people across the country – even across the world, if you didn’t mind the international call charges. Essential and beloved parts of internet culture such as flame wars, the use of online pseudonyms, and trolling all come from BBSs. For the extremely curious, there’s an 8-part, 5-hour long documentary on YouTube about their history.

Usenet
The link between BBSs and forums, Usenet allows users to connect and post messages online, and went public in 1980. Usenet is decentralised, with the entire system shared between many servers, much like peer-to-peer filesharing networks such as bittorrent. Indeed, in the 80s and 90s, it was the place to go for pirated films, games and software, known as “warez”.

Usenet was divided into categories and subcategories called newsgroups, with the most famous being “alt” – the alternative group for anything that doesn’t fit anywhere else. Folk etymology suggested alt stood for “anarchists, lunatics and terrorists” and as the name imples was home to a thriving hacker community. Usenet and alt gave  modern internet slang terms such as “spam” and “Godwin’s Law”.

An archive of Usenet posts back to 1981 can be found on Google Groups; however, to find warez and more illicit posts, you may need a client program and access to a Usenet server – many ISPs still have one.

The first Usenet post has been lost, but “Watson, come here, I need you” doesn’t hold a candle to the oldest one archived:

“Rusty is right (or is that “Rusty is Wright”?)
– we have ALL in our .ngfile so I tend to forget
this. ALL.ALL may or may not work, but
ALL certainly does. Mark”

IRC
Internet Relay Chat is still commonly used in many internet communities – I’m on two IRC servers as I write this. Launched in August 1988, the idea of chat rooms was not new even then, with several BBSs already having the ability to let multiple users talk at once. IRC came to prominence during the 1991 Soviet coup attempt and first Gulf War, when it allowed users to receive news from areas under media blackout, a role still filled by social media sites like twitter.

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