Universities and the Pioneering of the Internet

A brief discussion amongst Beyond Distance colleagues regarding the BBC television programme “The Virtual Revolution,” raised the question of what role was played by education in the pioneering of the internet. “The Virtual Revolution” made only a very brief mention that it was four universities, linked together as ARPANET, which comprised the forerunner of the internet. In fact, universities, research and education were the shaping, driving force behind the entire development of the internet.

J. C. R. Licklider, whilst working as a Professor of  Psychology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960, published a paper entitled “Man-Computer Symbiosis” in which he wrote, “The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”

Licklider, J.C.R., “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, vol. HFE-1, 4-11, Mar 1960. Eprint

In 1962, Licklider wrote memos detailing his idea of a “Galactic Network,” a globally-connected set of nodes through which users could access documents and data from any other node. Later that year, when he was appointed head of computer research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he managed to convince his teammates and successors of the value of the idea of the computer network. It was DARPA which realised Licklider’s vision, bringing ARPANET online with the four universities in late 1969. The idea was for researchers to be able to share data and information with each other, regardless of location.

Other internet developments occurred at research institutions and universities. Packet switching was developed by both Donald Davies of the UK National Physical Laboratory and Leonard Kleinrock at MIT; the Domain Name System (DNS) at University of Wisconsin, Mosaic (the predecessor to the Netscape browser) at University of Illinois. And of course, Sir Tim Berners Lee first proposed the idea of hypertext whilst working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

Not only has research and learning shaped the internet, but consequently the impact of the internet on research and learning cannot be overstated. Distance learning, in the past only carried out on paper and by snail mail, has been revolutionised by e-tivities and multimedia material delivered via the internet. Distance and on-campus students alike benefit from podcasts and other materials organised and offered 24/7 to anywhere by means of virtual and personal learning environments. Here at Beyond Distance in January 2010, while snow paralysed much of the UK, we were able to virtually gather dozens of participants from every continent except Antarctica to study and discuss learning futures through our completely-online Learning Futures Festival. Even if television misses this side of the story, we will continue to develop the education side of the internet story.

Terese Bird

Happy Birthday, Internet!

Yesterday, 29 October 2009, marked forty years since the first pieces of data travelled via a computer connection between the University of California in Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute. The BBC published an insightful account of the fascinating early years of the internet, which by 1971 was already connecting universities on the East and the West Coast of USA. Looking at the two solitary lines on the map illustrating the early net I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the speed of the change which has thrown us into the super-connected super-fast world of today. And I wonder if in 2050 there might be someone, writing a blog or whatever the communication channel of the day is, reviewing technology from 2010 and thinking “If they only knew what was coming at them…”

Following the links on the BBC website I listened to the oldest computer music recording – Baa Baa Black Sheep – played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer at the University of Manchester in 1951. Below is a photo of the “Player” followed by a photo of a music player of today. Can you spot the 7 differences?

 Manchester's Baby


In coverage of the other astonishing talents of the machine, a BBC reporter breathless with excitement revealed that “the electronic brain” could tell you whether 2 to the power of 127 is a prime number in 25 minutes, compared to the 6 months it would take for the human brain to make the calculation.

Every time that I get reminded of the amazing progress that has been achieved since these early days of computer technology, I ask myself – what could possibly come next? Can a music player become even smaller? Or bigger? Or disappear completely and leave the music streaming through the air? Sometimes I discover I sympathise more than I would have liked with Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of the US Office of Patents who said in 1899 that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

 Any trip down history lane would be wasted if one comes back without a lesson or two for the future. One of the comments in the BBC material on the early net could turn out to be just that. It is about the initial reaction to the idea for a computer network – “A horrible idea” people thought. Larry Roberts, the MIT scientist who was working on the project said that institutions were opposing the concept because they wanted to keep control of their resources. Now that objection suddenly does not come across as outdated and archaic as the Ba Ba Black Sheep music player, does it? Blackboard, anyone? Are there ground-breaking, rule-bending, mind-blowing innovations at the door step of higher education institutions today that are being shunned because people want to keep control of their resources?  What can we do about it?

Sandra Romenska



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