Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet

Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon
Simon and Schuster, 1996
ISBN 0-684-81201-0; $24.00; 320 pages

Reviewed by
John F. Barber, Ph. D.
Department of Language and Communication
Northwestern State University
Natchitoches, LA 71497
318-357-6272 318-357-5942 (FAX)
Email: jfbarber@alpha.nsula.edu
WWW: http://www.nsula.edu/~jfbarber/index.html

Most of us who use the Internet daily do so with the thought that it has always existed. But little more than 25 years ago, the Internet existed only in the minds of the computer scientists and engineers who were in the process of inventing and building it. Today, the Internet as we know it still reflects their personalities and quirks.

This is the story that Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon tell in their book Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. Hafner (coauthor with John Markoff of Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier) and husband Lyon tell the story of a small group of individuals working together to create a way to link computers across the country. The system they developed became one of the most important technological breakthroughs of our time, and one that transformed communications as radically as did the telephone and telegraph.

Using interviews and research materials like Requests for Comments, Hafner and Lyon's story is rich in human detail about the key players and filled with little known behind the scenes facts and interesting anecdotes about the early development of ARPAnet, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) computer network. For example, they tell how huge corporations like IBM, AT&T, and the U. S. Postal Service failed to see the potential of ARPAnet and its basic concept of packet switching and turned down opportunities to own the network as a monopoly service. They chronicle the origins of digital culture features like flaming, emoticons, the @sign, and discussion groups. In between they tell how continual creative thinking by those building the original network led to the invention of protocols of today's Internet like TCP/IP.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late tells the story of young computer whizzes who succeeded where other refused to venture. In the process they invented the basis of our digital culture communication world that are every bit as fundamental as the earth, air, fire, and water basis of our real world. Markoff and Lyon tell an interesting story of Internet history that provides good context for an arena many of us find ourselves interacting in on a daily basis.

In the late 1960s the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded a research project designed to develop a way to connect different computers and foster point-to-point communications among its university-based researchers. In 1969, the contract to build the most integral component of this envisioned network was awarded to a small Cambridge, MA consulting firm called Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN). Working around the clock BBN developed a computerized switch designed to connect host computers at the four original research sites with the transcontinental telephone lines that formed the backbone of ARPA's network.

The ARPAnet was an immediate success and allowed resource sharing as intended. But, it was email that powered the growth of the network through the next decade. By the end of the 1980s, technological refinements and a growing number of other international computer networks prompted turning part of ARPAnet into a military network. The rest was merged with other networks to form what we now call the Internet: a world-wide collection of interconnected computer networks.