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The History of the Internet

14 January 201211:01AMfiction

The internet, or Intercontinental Network, was a communications system which has its origins in a series of pneumatic tubes constructed in the late 1800s beneath the Atlantic ocean, as a cost-effective and reliable means of connecting the European telegraph system with that of the United States. The network is widely regarded as the first true global network.

Origins
The internet was commissioned in 1857, following an earlier inquiry by the US congress into "The Feasibility of Interconnecting the American and European Telegraphical Networks, with the Aim of Forthwith Facilitating Straightforward Inter-continental Communication and Commerce." The newly created NSA, or National Signals Agency, was given the task of testing the project's viability, and coming up with the required technologies.

NSA director at the time, Edgar Wright, was in favour of a direct approach, by simply laying regular copper telegraph wires along the seabed. This was to prove costly, due to the high cost of securing enough copper. Additionally, the wires were prone to breaking in strong seas, necessitating a shutdown of the entire network while the wires were reeled in and replaced. After several electrocutions caused by the massive amounts of current required, this approach was finally scrapped and an alternative put into place, creating the internet in its final form.

Technology
The system decided upon was described thus by head engineer Nicholas Frost:

"Telegrams intended for European destinations are sent to one of several sites along the eastern seaboard. Upon arrival, they are dumped directly to a bit of paper strip by trained operators - 'routers' . The messages are then packed into canisters, and sent through a pressurised subsea tube, and upon arriving in Europe, fed by hand back into the network."

The system was praised as "efficient" and "ahead of its time", and neatly circumvented both the voltage problem and the difficulty of translating from American Morse Standard Code into the Pegg System in use in Europe at the time, as messages could be relayed in human-readable form and re-encoded at the receiving end. The pipes were also significantly less prone to breaking, and could by the early 1900s could be 'patched' with submersibles.

Uses
While primarily used for routing telegrams, there were some experiments with other uses of the network. In 1899, American Express leased a tube, and experimented with sending banknotes and other financial documents directly rather than as electrical signal dumps. This achieved some limited success, but the service eventually proved unwieldy and was closed in 1905. Other attempts to send small cargo through the tubes was likewise unpopular, primarily because the 1-inch diameter tubes could not admit anything large or rigid enough to be worth risking the integrity of the tubes for. There was some discussion of opening other pipes for pneumatic cargo transfer, but these were never put into practice.

Criticisms
The network was criticised by many telegraph operators, including Samuel Morse, as being 'inelegant', and relying on human transcription rather than direct transmission. It was also not capable of carrying telephone signals once they were invented, where electrical cables might have been adapted. Despite these issues, 'the tubes' as they came to be known remained in use until the mid-20th century.

The tubes were also criticised for being susceptible to internet piracy. This involved anchoring a ship over a tube, and taking advantage of any give in the tube to hoist it aboard. Once cut and spliced onto a suitable pneumatic pump, the likes of which were readily available from hobby catalogues, the pirates could send and receive packets for free, or exchange illegal packets with other pirates without the knowledge of authorities. Despite legislation and numerous crackdowns, pirates continued to plague the network until its closure.

Closure and Impact
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II, there was significant discussion on the future of the tubes, due to the threat of German U-boats sabotaging or intercepting network usage. The possibility of encrypting wartime communication was raised, but was vetoed by Winston Churchill, who (following the efforts of Alan Turing breaking Germany's Enigma cipher) was hesitant to let even coded communications fall into enemy hands. The decision was made to close the network and instead focus on solely electrical means of communication, such as radiotelegraphy.

After the war, the pipes were never reopened and remained disused for many years. Eventually in the late 1970s, the tubes were removed from the seabed because of concerns about the lead content of the rubber in the cables and its possible effects on deep sea marine life. However, much of the terminology was adapted for use on the fledgling electronic network, with terms such as 'router', 'pirate', 'bits', 'packets', 'patching', and even the name 'internet' being adapted to suit their electronic equivalents.

The History of the History of the Internet This is developed from a story Morgan and I spun when someone asked when the internet was invented. I said 'the 50s', which he immediately followed with 'the 1850s, that is', and we sort of bounced off each other the whole time, while keeping a totally straight face and being entirely serious. It was apparently quite believable.

Clearly we should become con artists.

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