My attention was caught by this quote from Clay Shirky on the excellent ReadWriteWeb blog:
Back in 1974, when the Internet was a fraction of what it is now, the acorn to an oak, there were really only two applications,” said Shirky, “Telnet, and FTP.”
Surely he’s wrong, I thought. Those protocols aren’t that old.
But I was wrong. FTP was invented in 1971, and telnet was developed in 1969.
(Telnet is a way to connect interactively with another computer. In practice it’s been replaced by the more secure ssh, but vestigial copies remain on all modern computers.)
What really threw me wasn’t that telnet was from 1969 as much as that it was RFC 15. In the networked world, Requests for Comments are documents which define the standards that computers use when communicating with each other. To understand how old RFC 15 is, consider that the venerable FTP is RFC 114, while email as we know it is RFC 821 (1982), and HTTP is RFC 1945 (1996, although obviously it had been in use for years). The most recent RFC is 5382. RFC 15 is ancient history.
Because I am a nerd I spent some time browsing the early RFCs, and I was struck by how charmingly antique they are. RFC 16 says that M.I.T. should receive copies of RFCs. RFC 6 begins, “I talked with Bob Kahn at BB&N yesterday.” RFC 14 never existed.
RFC 7 (“Host-IMP Interface”) includes a prefatory note:
The original of RFC 7 was hand-written, and only partially illegible [sic]
Indeed, the actual RFC begins:
This paper is concerned with the preliminary software design of the
Host IMP interface. Its main purpose is on the one hand to define
functions that will be implemented, and on the other hand to provide
a base for discussions and …(unreadable).
I’m on the mailing list for users of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), an XML schema used primarily for encoding historical texts. The schema is equipped with tags for tracking everything about a document, including changes that occur over centuries of time. On the TEI list, people ask questions like, “How do I represent a medieval manuscript and also indicate which passages were underlined by an 18th century owner?” or “What tag should I use for a poem title that was handwritten vertically in the left margin?” (Promptly followed by vigorous scholarly debates over the “correct” answers.)
There’s something charming about how early internet history, just 40 years old, is almost as poorly documented and in need of careful archivists.