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When Did That Happen?

Project MAC, the Internet, and Interactive Computing

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  In the 1960s, a network was conceived that would change computing in fundamental and far-reaching ways.  

In July 1963, a little-known agency of the Department of Defense entered into an agreement with MIT to fund something called Project MAC. In 1962, J.C.R. Licklider had moved from MIT to the Department of Defense as head of the Information Processing Techniques Office of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Licklider took a more aggressive approach to computing than the agency expected and when he received a proposal from Robert Fano of MIT for something called Project MAC (multi-access computing), Licklider decided to fund it. On July 1, 1963, ARPA entered into a contract with MIT to develop what would ultimately become interactive computing. Project MAC included money for the expansion of CTSS, MIT’s early time-sharing system, into what was intended to be a community-wide computer utility. Project MAC became a computer industry project within a year. In 1964, MIT joined with GE and ATT in a project designed to develop a new computer and a time-sharing operating system. The project was called Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service).

ARPAnet and the Internet

Licklider left ARPA in 1964 and eventually rejoined MIT as Project MAC’s director in 1968 but the aggressive approach to funding technology projects he had started at ARPA continued in his absence. Licklider was followed first by Ivan Sutherland and then by Robert Taylor. It was Taylor and his assistant Larry Roberts who succeeded in creating the predecessor to the Internet, a new kind of network known as ARPAnet. By 1967, ARPA had decided that their network would use AT&T’s existing wires by, in essence, having the mainframe computers call each other and never hang up. Taylor and Roberts also determined that the existing technology could not support a continuous stream of data without error. Accordingly, they determined to use smaller, less error-prone packets of data which could easily be re-transmitted, if needed. Finally, ARPA directed that their be no central computer or routing site. The ARPAnet was to be decentralized and, therefore, more sustainable.

Multics and UNIX

While the network was being successfully built, the Multics project was looking more and more like a failure. Its goal of true interactive computing was so ambitious and so general that the project floundered in discussion and debate. It was of little surprise when ATT withdrew their money and manpower from the project in April 1969. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, two AT&T computer scientists with little to do after their departure from Multics, decided to build their own operating system. Thompson designed the new system to be less ambitious but still provide many of the tools that they had to leave behind. With Ritchie’s help they had a working version of their operating system—called UNIX as a play on the name Multics—installed at AT&T by the end of 1970.

The C Programming Language

The growth of UNIX and the need for a better programming language with which to program the UNIX kernel led Ritchie to develop the small, elegant, C language. C begat C++ when it supported classes and, ultimately, objects.

The ARPAnet had its own success in the early 1970’s. The first email message was sent in 1971, FTP was implemented in 1973, and new sites were being added each month. It wasn’t until 1975 and the introduction of the personal computer that what we know as the Internet became inevitable.

The World Wide Web

The latest piece of the puzzle was placed in December 1989 when the first web page of what would become the World Wide Web was published by Tim Berners-Lee on a server in Switzerland. By December 1999, the one billionth web page had been published.

What started in July 1963 with Project MAC had become the most successful federally-funded research project of all time. All of it had taken less than 40 years—and that’s when it happened.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites. He is currently hard at work on a book on the history of data processing.

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