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Ask HN: Where can one learn about the history of the internet and the protocols?
287 points by joddystreet on July 27, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments
I would like to read about the initial proposals, email exchanges, discussions, about why any specific technology or protocol was built, who all were involved - designer, funders, contributors, etc. History, timeline, discussions, proposals - accepted & rejected, ideas - accepted & rejected, philosophy, restrictions. In general I would like to read about all the technologies, but want to start with the internet and the TCP stack (protocols).

Here is an overview from the people who created it:


An internet timeline, 1957 -- 2017:


The recent article linked here reviews some of the important early papers about the Internet and alternatives:


A History of the ARPANET: The First Decade, Report no. 4799, Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc.


The Wikipedia article on Arpanet has many many links to its technical and political history.


The Arpanet was the immediate predecessor of the Internet, and was built and operated by many of the same people. Arpanet did not use the TCP protocol, but experience with Arpanet very much informed the design of TCP.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet

By Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon



I read the Audiobook version of this book. It presents a narrative of the development of the very early stages of the internet. I enjoyed it. I think it would also have been fine in print or ebook formats. It is not too long and seems to present the events in a mostly linear fashion.

You'll get a great overview of the names, organizations, and machines that were used in this period.

The book is a decent read. Like you said, it linearly presents the companies and people involved, mostly ARPA and BBN. Not a technical book, so don't expect anything in-depth on protocols, more like analogies laypeople can understand.


To avoid sounding too declarative, he labeled the note “Request for Comments” and sent it out on April 7, 1969. Titled “Host Software,” the note was distributed to the other sites the way all the first Requests for Comments (RFCs) were distributed: in an envelope with the lick of a stamp. RFC Number 1 described in technical terms the basic “handshake” between two computers—how the most elemental connections would be handled. “Request for Comments,” it turned out, was a perfect choice of titles. It sounded at once solicitous and serious. And it stuck.

“When you read RFC 1, you walked away from it with a sense of, ‘Oh, this is a club that I can play in too,’” recalled Brian Reid, later a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon. “It has rules, but it welcomes other members as long as the members are aware of those rules.” The language of the RFC was warm and welcoming. The idea was to promote cooperation, not ego. The fact that Crocker kept his ego out of the first RFC set the style and inspired others to follow suit in the hundreds of friendly and cooperative RFCs that followed. “It is impossible to underestimate the importance of that,” Reid asserted. “I did not feel excluded by a little core of protocol kings. I felt included by a friendly group of people who recognized that the purpose of networking was to bring everybody in.” For years afterward (and to this day) RFCs have been the principal means of open expression in the computer networking community, the accepted way of recommending, reviewing, and adopting new technical standards.


> "Twenty five years ago, it didn't exist. Today [1998], twenty million people worldwide are surfing the Net."

The scale of the web today is truly staggering. The entirety of Yahoo era internet users would be a single celebrity's Twitter followers now. It's no wonder things felt so much more intimate and real back then. It really was a qualitatively different time and place.

twenty million people worldwide are surfing the Net."

Facebook alone has two orders of magnitude (2 billion) more users than 1998 had in its entirety.


"Casting The Net" by Peter H Salus is also a pretty decent read:


> I read the Audiobook version of this book.

Slightly OT, but this concept really intrigued me.

Books with denser technical content get difficult in the audio form, though it's probably a matter of habit―but generally audiobooks are a great way to consume narrative material: I think I got through around thirty books in the past seven months. Walks, shopping and house chores are much more productive on the brain front now.

Pro tip: VLC lets you speed up the audio. 1.3x to 1.5x is no problem with many narrators.


Also, a more beginner explanation: http://www.warriorsofthe.net/

"The Design Philosophy of the DARPA Internet Protocols" is what you are looking for →


Excellent summary of the same by Adrian Colyer →


You can also read "The Innovators" by Walter Isaacson to get acquainted with how it gained momentum.

Reading the design philosophy was a life changing experience for me. It's really incredible how much we take this incredible system for granted.

You spoke my mind :)

I've read an absurd number of Internet histories. And I think one of the problems with studying the history of the Internet is that it very quickly grew up and out of the small group of people who got it started, and thus writing its history must take into account the increasing number of perspectives that chronologically track its development. Also, it can be very difficult to disambiguate the history of the Internet with that of general computing. The Internet developed and continues to develop both simultaneously influencing, and being influenced by, the development of general computing. Sometimes just reading the changelog of a particular old piece of infrastructure software(BIND, AT&T UNIX) can reveal more to you than reading about the Internet specifically.

I could throw tons of links here, but below are a couple that provide detailed accounts that people may find interesting.

RSSAC023: History of the Root Server System. I'm biased because I helped edit this a little ;)


Chapter 3 of my friend Ashwin's dissertation. It's IMO a very well written and accessible social history of the Internet.


Really old messages on the namedroppers ML like this. If someone could figure out how to view all messages on namedroppers I would be eternally grateful.


The link to the dissertation is not working for me…

Looks like some copypasta got in there. Delete the angle bracket at the end.

Just remove the %3E percent cruft after the .pdf

Sorry, should be fixed now.

Then if you really want to get into the details you could begin working through the RFCs:


in contrast to this, a brief and lively history is the book Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon.

Came here to say this. Learning BNF ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backus%E2%80%93Naur_form ) and knowing how to go to the roots have helped me more than once in my career (started as tester, moved to security engineer, then net engineer, then CISSP, then ISSO, then HIPPA SPO -- now senior sec engineer at top10 UNI)

Here is a good site to see what obsoletes and is superseded by what. https://www.potaroo.net/ietf/html/rfcindex.html

I have no idea what those acronyms mean, (UNI is University?) But that is an excellent resource for internet RFCs, thanks.

https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc1118.txt is one such historical record.

Implementing something like DNS, however, requires jumping between multiple documents and understanding what's deprecated and extended by each.

It’s super-annoying to read an RFC and not know about the newer updates or that it has been superseded altogether. And source code that mentions RFC 822 when it’s been superseded twice. Unfortunately the old RFCs are never updated with links to the newer ones.

However, I just saw that rfc-editor.org actually lists these links between them, e.g. https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc2822 has links to both 822 and to 5322.

All RFC's have links to Obsoleted by and Updated by sections in HTML format where applicable. For example: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc822

Ah, great! Too bad Google doesn’t seem to know about it. Searching for “rfc 2822” doesn’t find it and only shows me https://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2822.txt

Inventing the Internet (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/inventing-internet) is a fantastic place to start

Innovations in Internetworking (https://www.amazon.com/Innovations-Internetworking-Artech-Te...) is a great collection of papers that help you understand the original thinking behind each protocol

The Elements of Networking Style (https://www.amazon.com/Elements-Networking-Style-Animadversi...) explains why you see only 4 layers in the real Internet while ISO slices it into 7 and all the fun parts os standard bodies while retaining a unique sense of satire

The best all around book about the ARPA/Parc research community is Mitchell Waldrop's "The Dream Machine". Covers pretty much everything pretty much outstandingly.

I'd second this. I'm about halfway through the book right now and still being blown away. It's sort of like the version of 'Hackers' more appropriate to the version of me that has 14 more years engineering, design, and business experience (than when I originally read and loved Hackers, I mean). It's very in depth and interesting, and it's crazy to me that it's not a better known book.

(That said, I'm just getting into the more internet-focused section at the moment, so I can't speak too much to that part specifically.)


This April 2006 Google Tech Talk by Van Jacobson of PARC proposes a content-addressing based replacement for the IP protocol. But before doing so, he explains what shaped the telephony and the current networking paradigms.

Perhaps not exactly what you're looking for, but from a historical perspective The Cuckoo's Egg does a wonderful job of capturing what the state of networking was in the late 1980's

Definitely highly recommend! Also check out what Clifford (if I remember his name correctly) is up to these days! He sells Klein bottles and builds little robots to help him. Definitely someone I want to be when I grow up haha.

Ohh, he's the Silicon Snake Oil guy!


Clifford Stoll. Interesting character. (Book is 1989; ISBN 0-385-24946-2)

Computer History Museum and their youtube channel. They do a great job producing the oral history series.

i.e. Oral History of Robert "Bob" Kahn Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKxNMTVnBzM

CHM oral history playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLQsxaNhYv8daKdGi7s85u...


Twenty years on, Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia is still my go-to resource for a human readable understanding of what makes the Internet tick: https://www.freesoft.org/CIE/

Never knew about it. Really good for quick introduction and revision. Thanks.

I urge you to watch this video. This is a great talk from a networking legend: "Network Protocols: Myths, Missteps, and Mysteries" by Radia Perlman.


These videos are part of an ongoing series about the history of the Internet in UK but there are general industry history facts that are interesting independent of whether you're in the UK:


You also can't go wrong with the TCP/IP Illustrated books (there are 3 volumes in total, I think 2nd edition is the most recent) although, they are very in depth if yii only want an overview:


If you can understand German, the "Request for Comments" podcast is gold:


Some episodes are in English, sadly they are not labelled as such as far as I can see.

Even more interesting would be an in depth analysis of the OSI protocols and comparison to their IP equivalents. The actual technical details of OSI are largely absent from the internet and hard to search since IP lifted it's terminology.

As mentioned previously, "When Wizard Stay Up Late - The Origins of the Internet" is considered by many as the authoritative text on how the Internet came to be.

For more technical aspects and if you're inclined to sift through tons of emails, mailing lists archives may be of interest

for example the end-to-end mailing list http://www.postel.org/e2e.html (seems down at the moment)

also various IETF mailing lists archives - https://datatracker.ietf.org/list/wg/

Werner Herzog's "Lo and Behold" is a gem of a documentary that details a bit of this. It is wide-ranging and sheds light on various impacts that the internet is having on our civilization.

A few folks are pointing to the RFCs. In particular, let me recommend RFC 1000 as a place to start:


(This RFC is a reference guide for the Internet community which summarizes of all the Request for Comments issued between April 1969 and March 1987. This guide also categorizes the RFCs by topic.)

Where Wizards Stay Up Late, also recommender by a bunch of folks here, is also a great read.

This short, 1995 history of the web (a timeline) may prove handy.


Edit: Here's one from Tim Berners Lee circa 1993-4.


This book [1] by Robert Cailliau and James Gillies is very approachable, entertaining, and somewhat comprehensive.

Edit: The book has lots of historical details about competing early technologies such as the OSI vs TCP/IP, C vs well-structured languages, Archie/WAIS/Gopher, attempts from different parts of the world such as AlohaNet in Hawaii and Minitel in France. That's just a sampler, but the story telling does not get too bogged down with too much details and moves along at a quick pace.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/How-Web-was-Born-Story/dp/0192862073

Try Kurose's "Computer Networking: A Top-Down Approach". The points you mention are not the focus of the book but get touched on the way, plus it's extremely accessible. I vividly remember reading it as a CS student and being happy that I finally reached a satisfactory level of understanding on the topic.

Follow the RFCs. Even if don’t read them in their entirety, you will have a frame of reference from which to dive deeper.

A few years ago I took this MOOC: https://www.coursera.org/learn/internet-history

It was great for me because it was very light in coursework and easy, so it was a good gateway drug to MOOCs, unlike the more advanced classes which I often dropped halfway due to lack of time.

The content itself is very good, includes some old videos and interviews with some of the people who worked on internet technology in the 80s and 90s, and even does a quick explanation of some concepts of computer networks(TCP/IP, ethernet, etc).

Check out IEEE Computing Conversations Podcast by Chuck Severance. Fascinating history and chat with people who made great impact in computing. You can subscribe to the podcast, read the column and also check the youtube channel.



This Coursera Course is pretty interesting: https://www.coursera.org/learn/internet-history

You will find an interesting point of view on these matters presented in:

  "Patterns in Network Architecture: A Return to Fundamentals"
  by John Day
  Prentice-Hall 2008
  ISBN 0-13-225242-2

Thank you for this!

Start with the basics - TCP/IP Illustrated - Volume 1: The Protocols. Then read RFCs for each protocol, and other 'meta' RFCs on best practices. Then read histories.

Every now and then I read some of the early RFCs to remind myself of how nice it is today, and yet how much sheer fun it must have been to craft some of the protocols, so I recommend those as extra reading material - no need to read specific ones in sequence, just search for them as topics arise.

Having lived through the original yellow-coax Ethernet years and filled out actual site registrations with the infamous "ICBM Address" field, there is a lot that I can directly relate to.

I found http://grimoire.computer/ to be one of the best primers to how networking evolved.

The internet would not be nearly as useful as it is without Ted Nelson's hypertext concepts.

For those of you who are interested in understanding Ted Nelson's role in envisioning and evangelizing hypertext, I wrote a review of Ted Nelson's Ph.D. thesis which he wrote in Japan.


Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet

Robert X. Cringely's follow-up to Triumph of the Nerds was pretty good. It looks like you can watch the whole thing fit free on line now too - check the links at the bottom of the Wikipedia article.


If you're interested in this type of information in podcast format, check out the History of Networking series from The Network Collective: https://thenetworkcollective.com/category/episodes/history-o...

If you’re tangentially interested in the history of the technologies behind web programming specifically, check this out (author): http://www.observationalhazard.com/2018/06/history-of-web-pr...

For the darker aspects of Internet history, read 'Surveillance Valley' by Yasha Levine: https://www.amazon.com/Surveillance-Valley-Military-History-...

https://www.ietf.org/how/meetings/proceedings/ and start at the bottom, from when the Internet Engineering Task Force was an internet engineering task force.

If you have time I suggest to take the Georgia Tech Computer Networking course free at udacity https://www.udacity.com/course/computer-networking--ud436

Alan Kay's 'Normal Considered Harmful' is a good place to start (more about computing in general): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvmTSpJU-Xc

Uh, did you try Wikipedia? It has a lot of info with lot of links:


A kind of easter egg perhaps about Jon Postel. (Read the title out loud.)

RFC 2468: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2468

I've been reading "where wizards stay up late" which is a great history of the internet being built. It's less focused on protocols, but a really valuable read for telling the story.

Some posts in this blog under the "Development" tab are pretty nice. https://eager.io/blog/

IETF might be a place to start, https://ietf.org/standards/

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard Hamming is a nice one about computer history and codes in general.

An awesome book is Where wizards stay up late: the origins of the internet.

I know you said read but I found the Internet History Podcast very enlightening and fun to listen to: https://pca.st/miqr

It’s an interesting show but really ought to be the web history podcast.

You can start with an introductory overview ( Chuck Severance's Internet History on coursera ) and then search the RFCs, books and material afterwards for a more detailed view.

The coursera course is great because it covers the internet from inception to today and includes interviews with individuals who made great contributions along the way. It is impressive the people who he was able to track down and interview.

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