Innovation and invention are two areas of life that have little respect for political correctness. They are often found grabbing whatever chance or opportunity happens to come their way: The Cold War may have been a time of great East/West tension and distrust; but it was also boom time for certain science and technology projects looking for a government funding.

Unfashionable and ungracious as it might seem in cold print, without this Superpower stand-off the world would probably not be as advanced as it is today in the fields of satellite launch and communication, space exploration, or in the networking of computers.

The first US "internet" (note with a small "i" - the difference will be explained in the next paragraph) was designed to be the main communications method on "the day after" a Russian nuclear strike. With conventional communications systems destroyed (or at least presumed to be destroyed), a complex array of inter linked computers could still have a chance to communicate through an array of possible connections.

(In a computer dictionary sense, an "internet" (with a small"i") is just another name for a network. However in most instances it is used to describe a collection of networks connected by a so-called "router." The Internet (with a capital"I") is the sophisticated "multi-protocol" internet system that many computer users now subscribe to in order gain access to E-mail and the World Wide Web (WWW)).

From this unlikely Cold War beginning came what we now know as the Internet, sometimes also known as the Information Superhighway. Curiously the third common term used for this area of computing - Cyberspace - came from the world of literature:William Gibson used the term in his novel "Neuromancer" where it described the "society that gathers around the world of computers."

The problems of computer networking are varied and exist at many levels. However the number one problem - at any point in its limited history - is dealing with networking errors or "retaining system integrity" in more technical language.

Simply linking two pieces of non-aligned computer equipment together is not particularly difficult to a skilled programmer, however unless the software is very sophisticated any linked system crash (or unexpected occurrence) can easily bring down the whole system - the so-called "domino effect."

Keeping a network up and running through system crashes and third party miscalibrations (not to mention possible mischief such as hacking) will always be the most difficult task - past, present or future.

While clearly less than perfect, today's Internet is quite a mini-miracle. While we will discuss politics in the second and third part of this series, many independent parties have to show a great deal of skill, investment and co-operation before a single byte of information can be exchanged.

Internet law-and-order is achieved through a system of so-called "firewalls" and "supervisor modes." In non-technical language, minimising the effects of distant third-party errors by constantly checking - and if necessary "repairing" - the system. However this doesn't mean that data loss cannot occur or that an individual user cannot crash off the system and have to log-on again.

(Only in a couple of instances have outside events damaged the efficiency of the Internet in a noticeable way. However in one instance this was the result of physical fire damage.)

The first person to envisage a collection of computers sharing common information was J.R. Licklider who worked for the Boston-based MIT Institute.

In 1962 he wrote a paper envisioning a "Galactic Network" of computers and how this would benefit mankind. Another early pioneer was Leonard Kleinrock whose studies resulted in a research paper stating - correctly as it turned out - that computers would have to develop a so-called "packet switching" protocol in order to communicate correctly.

(Today packet switching is the heart and soul of both the Internet and nearly all computer-to-computer information systems - including so-called Local Area Networks or LANs.)

In 1965 Thomas Mermill and Lawrence Roberts managed to create a network between a computer called "TX-2" in Boston and a Californian computer called "Q-32" using only a normal phone line. In those days computers were not mass produced and the connection was only made possible by a huge amount of inter-university co-operation.

In 1969 the government funded APRANET (Advanced Projects Research Agency InterNET) opened for business. This small network linked mainframe computers of the US universities UCLA, MIT, Stanford and Harvard. The system crossed the Atlantic in 1973 when the University College London and Norway's Royal Radar Establishment became part of the system.

With great irony APRANET was closed twenty years to the day after it opened (in 1989) with a UCLA conference and networking debate. In the words of the cliche, APRANET had become a victim of its own success!

During the 1960's other systems were devised for passing information over a telephone line. As early as 1964 the Post office (now BT) developed the so-called "Viewdata" system that allowed computer data to be sent down a standard phone line. At its peak the system had 30,000 terminals which looked a little like portable television with a number pad for requesting information.

(In 1974 a similar system was launched called CEEFAX - better known today as Teletext - that used spare lines of the television signal to send one-way data information.)

In 1980 Tim Berners-Lee of started work towards what we today call the World Wide Web. Working through American CERN Complex he put together a "hypertext" system that allowed text and graphic to appear side-by-side. Hypertext is a system in which the instructions (or code) is embedded in the central text rather than separate.

The joy of the system was that the system used third-party software embedded in the users computer and could be platform independent. Today WWW is the dominant force of the Internet, but various other systems had equal dominance while the standard became established.

Next time we will look at the state of the Internet today. How standards are established and debated as well as some of governing bodies such as Network Solutions Inc. We will also start to explore the role of the so-called "backbone" companies that provide the raw hardware and expertise that speeds the huge amount of data traffic across the Internet.

(C) Peter Hayes

Last updated 12.3.2005