One System, Universal Service?

The Internet was born in a distinctly American telecommunications environment -- the United States treated telegraph and telephone providers very differently than the rest of the world -- and there is good reason to believe that this environment played a formative role in its development, shaping the character of the Internet to come. Let us,…

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The Backbone: Introduction

In the early 1970s, Larry Roberts approached AT&T, the vast American telecommunications monopoly, with an intriguing offer. At the time, Roberts was director of  the computing division of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a relatively young organization within the Department of Defense that was dedicated to long-term, blue-sky research. Over the previous five years, Roberts…

The Switch: Introduction

The history of nearly any technology, when examined closely, is a complex braid. What might appear on the surface to be a single ‘invention’ is revealed to be a series of often unrelated ideas and motivations, recombinations and repurposings, that coalesce at last, after decades, into something that we dub the sewing machine, or the…

The Transistor, Part 2: Out Of The Crucible

The crucible of war prepared the ground for the transistor. The state of technical knowledge about semiconductor devices advanced enormously from 1939 to 1945. There was one simple reason: radar. The single most important technology of the war, its applications included detecting incoming air raids, locating submarines, guiding nightfighters to their targets, and aiming anti-aircraft…

The Electronic Computers, Part 4: The Electronic Revolution

We have now recounted, in succession, each of the first three attempts to build a digital, electronic computer: The Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) conceived by John Atanasoff, the British Colossus projected headed by Tommy Flowers, and the ENIAC built at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School. All three projects were effectively independent creations. Though John Mauchly, the motive force…