Quotes from The Backbone: A History of the Internet

It's quite unusual for me to write in English. But this post is based on the book The Backbone: A History of the Internet. And since it's written in English, it kind of makes sense :)

I like reading books about the history of the Internet, and this one is a good one.

You'll find below some quotes that I really enjoyed.

Since the majority of its content is available online, I also put hyperlinks back to the original posts.

Quotes from Chapter 4

Online at Discovering Interactivity.

Convenience for the user is the most important design factor:

Clark began to extract certain axiomatic principles of computer engineering, from which he never strayed. In particular, he came to believe that “convenience [for the user] is the most important design factor.“ (p.72)

Writing software is hard:

It had already become clear to anyone involved with computers that it was effectively impossible to write software correctly on the first try. (p.74)

Quotes from Chapter 5

Online at ARPANET, Part 1: The Inception.

A protocol as some sort of network control language:

He wrote of the need for some sort of network control language (what would later be called a protocol) (p.93)

ARPANET had no real military justification:

This idea of resource-sharing among the research community via a communications network, sowed the seeds within IPTO that led, several years later, to the creation of ARPANET. ARPANET thus had no real military justification, despite its military provenance, originating as it did in the halls of the Pentagon. (p.94)

Online at ARPANET, Part 3: The Subnet.

Definition of a protocol:

They called these the “host protocols.” The word protocol, a borrowing from diplomatic language, was first applied to networks by Roberts and Tom Marill in 1965, to describe both the data format and the algorithmic steps that determine how two computers communicate with one another. (p.114)

Origin of RFCs:

In order to record the outcome of some of the group’s early discussions, Crocker developed one of the keystones of the ARPANET (and future Internet) culture, the “Request for comments” (RFC). His RFC 1, published April 7, 1969 and distributed to the future ARPANET sites by postal mail, synthesized the NWG’s early discussions about how to design the host protocol software. (p.115)

Some opinions count more than others:

Of course, as in any community, some opinions counted more than others, and in the early days the opinion of Crocker and his core group of collaborators counted for a great deal. (p.115)

Telnet, FTP and NCP:

The NWG’s initial plan called for two protocols. Remote login (or Telnet) would allow one computer to act like a terminal attached to the operating system of another, extending the interactive reach of any ARPANET time-sharing system across thousands of miles to any user on the network. The file transfer protocol (FTP) would allow one computer to transfer a file, such as a useful program or data set, to or from the storage system of another. At Roberts’ urging, however, the NWG added a third basic protocol beneath those two, for establishing a basic link between two hosts. This common piece was known as the Network Control Program (NCP). The network now had three conceptual layers of abstraction – the packet subnet controlled by the IMPs at the bottom, the host-to-host connection provided by NCP in the middle, and application protocols (FTP and Telnet) at the top. (p.115-116)

Electronic mail:

But a third application protocol soon arrived, saving ARPANET from any possible accusations of irrelevance. The Network Working Group gave it several names over the years: network mail, message transmission protocol, and, finally, electronic mail. (p.117)

Quotes from Chapter 6

Online at The Computer as a Communication Device.

Computer networks became primarily a means for people to connect to one another:

ARPANET users discovered a new application, electronic mail, and it became the dominant activity on the network. […] Almost everyone involved in this process abandoned the ARPANET’s original stated goal of allowing computing hardware and software to be shared among a diverse range of research sites, each with its own specialized resources. Computer networks became primarily a means for people to connect to one another, or to remote systems that acted as sources or sinks for human-readable information, i.e. information databases and printers. (p.118)

The reply button or the killer “answer” feature:

We take for granted a reply button that will automatically fill out the title and recipient of an outgoing message based on an incoming one, but it was Vital’s MSG that first provided this killer “answer” feature in 1975; and it, too, was a Tenex program. (p.121)

Email was a hammer:

FTP and Telnet were useful tools, but they were expert tools: perhaps a hand plane or an orbital sander. Email was a hammer. Its utility was intuitively obvious to every network user. (p.122)

Ether Net:

Metcalfe originally called his plan to bring packet broadcasting to PARC the “ALTO ALOHA network”. Then, in a memo in May 1973, he rechristened it as “Ether Net“, alluding to the luminiferous ether which nineteenth-century physicists had theorized as the substrate that carried all electromagnetic radiation. (p.128)

Quotes from Chapter 7

Online at Inter-Networking.

Transmission Control Program (TCP):

Kahn knew a lot about computer networks, but had no experience with the details of protocol design – he was a signals processing guy, not a computer scientist. He knew Cerf would be a perfect partner to supply those skills, which would be crucial to any attempt to link ARPANET and PRNET. Kahn reached out to him about inter-networking, and they met several times throughout 1973 before holing up at the Cabana Hyatt in Palo Alto to produce their seminal paper, “A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication,” published in the May 1974 issue of IEEE Transactions on Communications. It presented the design for a Transmission Control Program (TCP) – the P was later changed to protocol – the cornerstone of the architecture of the modern Internet. (p.133)

Cerf, Kahn and all the others:

No two people or one moment are more closely identified with the invention of the Internet than Cerf and Kahn and the publication of this paper. But the creation of the Internet was not truly an event that happened at a point in time. It was a process that unfolded over years of development. The initial protocol described in Cerf and Kahn’s 1974 paper was tweaked and revised numerous times over the ensuing years. Not until 1977 was the first cross-network link tested; the protocol was not split into two layers – the now-ubiquitous TCP and IP – until 1978; and ARPANET did not adopt it until 1982. The participants in that process of invention extended well beyond the two most well-known principals. (p.134)


PUP [PARC Universal Packet] likely affected the design of the modern Internet again later in the 1970s, when Jon Postel proposed splitting TCP into TCP/IP in order to avoid having to run the intricate TCP protocol on the gateways benween networks. IP (Internet Protocol) was a simplified addressing protocol with none of TCP’s complex logic for ensuring the delivery of every bit. (p.135)

The Cyclades network:

Europe was another source of influence on the early internet protocols, especially the Cyclades network developed in France in the early 1970s. Cyclades came about as an offshoot of Plan Calcul, a program set in motion by President Charles de Gaulle to nurture a native French computing industry. (p.135)

Pouzin and Zimmerman:

What happened, then, to this early promise of inter-continental collaboration? How is it that Cerf and Kahn are hailed everywhere as the fathers of the Internet, yet we hear very little about Pouzin and Zimmerman? (p.138)

ENA is the Harvard Business School of France:

d’Estaing […] set up a government peopled with [ENA] types, whom Pouzin disdained – if Polytechnique was something like the MIT of France, ENA was its Harvard Business School. (p.141)

Quotes from Chapter 8

Online at The Era of Fragmentation, Part 1: Load Factor.

Cloud computing before its time:

The same process also made time-sharing less attractive to potential clients: why pay all the telecommunications costs and overhead of accessing a remote computer owned by someone else, when it was becoming so easy to equip your own office with powerful machines? Not unil fiber optics drove the unit cost of communications bandwidth into the ground would this logic reverse direction again, in favor of “cloud computing“. (p.152)

Online at The Era of Fragmentation, Part 2: Sowing the Wasteland.

Videotex and Minitel:

Even as videotex manqué, Prodigy was the last system of its kind in the U.S. By the time it launched, all the other major videotex experiments in the country had shut down. The dream of two-way television - talking back to your television set - was dead. There was another videotex network, outside the U.S., however, which became the most widely used of them all: the Minitel system in France. Transforming the “vast wasteland“ of television into a useful tool for self-improvement and social engagement might seem an ambitious enough goal for any country. But the French went farther still. Minitel’s backers pursued a dream that information technology could bend the trajectory of their entire nation upwards, from post-colonial decline to a post-modern technological empire. (p.163-164)

Quotes from Chapter 9

Online at The Era of Fragmentation, Part 3: The Statists.

60 francs per hour:

Hovever, with the exception of some access to the electronic phonebook, those terminals cost money for every minute of use, and there’s no doubt that the financial ability to afford Mintel services was distributed much more unequally than access to the hardware. The most heavily used services, the online chat rooms, could easily burn hours of call time in an evening, at a base rate of 60 francs per hour (equivalent to about $8, more than double the U.S. minimum wage at the time). (p.173)

3615 ULLA:

Companies plastered their access code in a mnemonic alphabetic form onto posters and billboards, much as they would do with website URLs in later decades: 3615 TMK, 3615 SM, 3615 ULLA. (p.174)

Walled gardens:

As access to the open Internet began to spread in the 1990s, it became popular for the cognoscenti to retrospectively deprecate the online services of the era of fragmentation as “walled gardens”. The implied contrast is to the freedom of wild spaces. If CompuServe represents a small, carefully cultivated plot of land, the Internet, in this metaphor, represents nature itself. (p.174)

Usenet grew in an anarchic way:

Quite unlike the carefully planned ARPANET, Usenet self-organized, and grew in an anarchic way overseen by no central authority. (p.180)

The origin of alt:

A group of anti-authoritarians, who saw this change as a coup by the “Backbone Cabal“ created their own splinter hierarchy rooted at alt, with its own parallel backbone. (p.182)

On Internet’s layered architecture:

Within a few years, the majority of Usenet traffic flowed across such links, rather than uucp connections over the plain-old telephone network. The independent uucp network gradually fell into disuse, and Usenet became just another application atop TCP/IP transport. The immense flexibility of the Internet’s layered architecture made it easy to absorb a single-application network in this way. (p.187)

Quotes from Chapter 10

Online at Internet Ascendant, Part 1: Exponential Growth.


The most distinct characteristic of the Internet compared to everything that preceded it was its layered, decentralized architecture, and attendant flexibility. IP allowed networks of a totally different physical character to share the same addressing system, and TCP ensured that packets were delivered to their destination anywhere on those networks. And that was all. Keeping the core operations of the network simple allowed virtually any application to be built atop it. (p.198)

The Web originated in Europe:

The early years of the Web, when it consisted entirely of bespoke, handcrafted pages, were nothing like its current incarnation. Yet bouncing around from link to link was already strangely addictive - and it provided a phenomenally cheap medium through which businesses could transmit visually-engaging advertisements, provide customer support, and even process digital purchases. None of the architects of the Internet had planned for the Web. It was the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee, a British engineer at the Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire (CERN), who created it in 1990 to help disseminate information among researchers at the lab. Yet it could easily rest atop TCP/IP, and re-use the domain-name system, created for other purposes, for its now-ubiquitous URLs. (p.199)

Quotes from Conclusion

Online at The Backbone: Conclusion.

The big five [Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook]:

These corporations did not monopolize access to applications in the same way that Verizon, AT&T and the like monopolized the delivery of packets. A huge variety of other companies of all sizes continued to thrive on the Web and in other parts of the Internet, and some of them (Netflix, for example), consume a very large share of online traffic. But the big five do control much of the basic software infrastructure used by other companies of all sizes, and they mediate most of the day-to-day interactions that most people have online. This constitutes a major shif in the large-scale structure of the Internet. (p.220-221)

The Internet is now truly in its middle age:

Whatever results from these new forces - states on one hand, revolutionaries on the other - the backbone as it was in 1995 is long gone. Its adolescence long since faded into nostalgic reminiscence, agonized by the gulf between youthful hopes and adult realities, the Internet must look ahead even to the possibility of its own mortality: can a unitary network of networks survive the increasing demands placed on it to conform to the needs of each and every sovereignty? Poised between the certainties of youth and the inevitabilities of senescence, the Internet is now truly in its middle age. (p.226)

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