Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How IT Came to Rule the World, 1.9: Early Internationalization of the Internet

Posted on | April 28, 2010 | No Comments

This is the 16th post in the mini-series How IT Came to Rule the World and addresses some of the earliest attempts to privatize and globalize the Internet.

A conference was being organized in 1972 to determine the future of the Internet and its packet-switching data communications technology. It was to be held in Washington DC and would primarily provide a showcase for the ARPANET. ARPA was struggling with the operational costs of the network and was looking to sell it off. Meanwhile, it was attracting the attention of the research community so the plan was to bring network engineers and computer scientists from around the world together to discuss the future of data communications.

In October 1972, the IEEE’s First International Conference on Computers and Communications was held at the Hilton Hotel to show off the ARPANET’s capabilities and perhaps unload the network that was becoming somewhat of an albatross for its handlers. ARPA was under some pressure to avoid paying for its operational costs. Organized by Bob Kahn of BBN and supported by Larry Roberts at ARPA, the conference sparked a major discussion of where the ARPANET was going and what it could do.

A number of ideas were discussed concerning future uses and implementation of the ARPANET, including its integration with other networks around the world. ARPA was looking to sell off its packet network, but a demonstration to AT&T resulted in a computer crash and Ma Bell left the conference unimpressed. Although the network would continue to be underused, the conference sparked a number of initiatives that would have longstanding influences on the future of the Internet.

Researchers from many countries eagerly attended the conference. One of the major concerns was voiced by representatives from those nations who wanted to implement their own packet-switching networks. French representatives for example were planning their own packet-switching network called CYCLADES and the British had their own independently designed NPL network. Even in the US, a group of disgruntled employees had left BBN in July 1972 and formed Packet Communications Incorporated, expressing concerns that BBN was commercializing too slowly.

Like most conferences, graduate students were crucial to its success. Bob Metcalfe was a graduate student at Harvard (and future inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Comm) assigned the task of compiling a list of uses for the ARPANET. He queried the administrators of ARPANET, many of which he knew because of his own participation in the project. He then wrote a manuscript called Scenarios, which listed 19 things to do with the ARPANET. The list included activities such as Remote Job Entry (RJE) as well as games and symbolic manipulation of mathematical formulas. Many of which would be demonstrated at the conference.

The ICCC of 1972 was the first major demonstration of ARPANET and Metcalfe was an obvious choice to demonstrate the fledgling computer network at the conference. An IMP was set up in Georgetown Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel and terminals were set up around the room. Kahn had requested participation from the various nodes of the network and universities which ARPA was funding. Together they included some thirty universities such as Carnegie Melon, Harvard, Hawaii, Illinois, MIT, New York University, USC, and Utah, as well as AMES, BBN, MITRE, and RAND. One major objective of the conference was to shop the network to interested private concerns and/or unload the operational aspects of the facilities. ARPA and BBN were looking for a commercial operator to run with the new technology that was becoming somewhat of an albatross for its handlers. They saw its potential as a commercial operation licensed with the FCC as a specialized common carrier and providing packet-switched data communications to corporate and other clients.

An obvious candidate for taking over the ARPANET was AT&T. Ten executives from AT&T scheduled a meeting with Metcalfe that he recounts with visible anger. Partway into the demonstration, the IMP crashed. The AT&T executives appeared visibly pleased and laughed, reassured that this new technology would be no threat to the largest network in the world. Bob Metcalfe never forgave them. He went on to Hawaii to learn the AlohaNet system and then incorporated those ideas into Ethernet at Xerox PARC.

It would was the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that would play the next important role in the adoption of packet-switching technologies.

To get some perspective of what the Internet has transformed into, view this video by



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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