Cerfing the Net
As every schoolchild knows, the Internet began, oddly enough, as a U.S. national security imperative: RAND Corporation staffers, faced with the hypothetical problem of a communications paralysis in the U.S. following a nuclear attack, developed a proposal for a completely decentralized communications network, connected by "nodes"of equal status that could toss a "packet" of information from one node to another until the information could reach its intended destination.
A few years of noodling and testing followed, until the Pentagon asked the computer science department at UCLA to assist in building a computer network that encompassed the RAND concept of "packet switching."
While the Pentagon had national security in mind, Vinton Cerf, a grad student in computer science at UCLA in 1968, had a personal stake in this alternative method of communication. Cerf (who was born prematurely on this date in 1943) was hearing-impaired and could not differentiate between telephone voices; "electronic mail" would eventually prove to be a more friendly form of communication. Cerf worked on the first relatively crude system of computer protocols that would allow different computers speaking different languages to communicate with each other over telephone lines in service of "packet switching."
By 1971, UCLA had built a 15-host system, known as the ARPANET, which was used by Pentagon scientists and their counterparts in the university sector to communicate with each other and post information of mutual interest. In 1972, Cerf joined the faculty at Stanford, and with the help of Robert Kahn and several others, conceptualized and refined the more sophisticated TCP/IP protocols for computer communication. The Transmission Control Protocols, or TCP, convert messages into streams of packets at the source and reassemble them back into messages at the destination; the Internet Protocols, or IP, handle the addressing of packets being routed across multiple nodes.
In the mid-1970s, Cerf joined the Pentagon to implement TCP/IP as the prevailing standard for computer communication. By the mid-1980s, the Internet had become one of the most influential scientific instruments of the century, enabling the free exchange of research and even the sharing of computing facilities on a global basis at low cost and high speed; but even Galileo's refracting telescope, another influential scientific instrument, could be used for other things than its intended scientific purpose -- as a window to the beauty of the firmament, as a club to beat people over the head with, or, one supposes, if you take the lenses out of a hand-held one, an imperfect funnel.
As the Internet expanded past the original ARPANET sites to 30 million hosts by the beginning of 1998 (due in part to the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, among others, which began to give the Internet its user-friendly media and navigation characteristics), users found a myriad of decidedly non-scientific uses for the Internet, the most significant being perhaps the transaction of consumer commerce (see funnel, above) for everything from mechanical parts to flowers to real estate to pornography. Cerf later served as a vice president at MCI Communications, where he continued to develop Internet-based services and tools, and now holds the title of "vice president and chief internet evangelist" at Google.