Before the World Wide Web, there was the plain, text-intense, awkwardly browsed Internet. Before the Internet, there was the quasi-military network of packet-switched university mainframes called the ARPAnet. And before the ARPAnet, there was an idea.

And that idea was an awful lot like a KVM switch.

In a New York Times interview, ARPAnet pioneer Bob Taylor describes one of the foundational motivations for developing ARPAnet as this:

“We had in my office three terminals to three different programs that ARPA [The U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency] was supporting. … For each of these three terminals, I had three different sets of user commands. So if I was talking online with someone at SDC and I wanted to talk to someone I knew at Berkeley or MIT about this, I had to get up from the SDC terminal, go over and log into the other terminal and get in touch with them. I said, oh, man, it’s obvious what to do: If you have these three terminals, there ought to be one terminal that goes anywhere you want to go where you have interactive computing. That idea is the ARPAnet.” [Emphasis mine.]

For those of you who don’t know Bob Taylor, you almost certainly know his work. While at NASA, he helped direct funding to Douglas Engelbart’s research, which gave us the computer mouse. Years later, Taylor worked at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Complex (PARC), where he developed a rather infamous device known as the Alto — the world’s first personal computer with Ethernet and a graphic user interface.

In between his NASA and PARC gigs, Taylor worked with another computer pioneer named J.C.R. Licklider. Together, this pair authored one of the seminal academic papers in the history of modern technology: “The Computer as a Communication Device.” In it the pair describes “a labile network of networks” of computers that “foster a working sense of community among their users.” Licklider and Taylor weren’t just talking about a decentralized network; they were conceiving online communities, e-mail, video conferences, Skype, wikis, and so much of the supposedly cutting-edge modern Internet we love today. And this paper was written in 1968.

About the only thing Taylor and Licklider didn’t foresee in their paper was the word Internet. In fact, they didn’t really name the network at all. Licklider had already done that, five years earlier, giving this computer communications web a sci-fi inspired name that hints at why we call it the Internet today.


Get the answer.

What was the original name proposed for the decentralized computing network we now call the Internet — a sci-fi inspired title first coined by computing pioneer J.C.R. Licklider more than 40 years ago?

In 1963, Licklider sent out a memo to several computer and communications engineers under this heading: Memorandum For: Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network. Yes, Licklider actually called his proposed uber-connected computer web the Intergalactic Computer Network, and he described the obstacles to his dream network as such:

“Consider the situation in which several different centers are netted together, each center being highly individualistic and having its own special language and its own special way of doing things. Is it not desirable, or even necessary for all the centers to agree upon some language or, at least, upon some conventions for asking such questions as ‘What language do you speak?’ At this extreme, the problem is essentially the one discussed by science fiction writers: ‘how do you get communications started among totally uncorrelated sapient beings?'”

Welcome to the operating system-agnostic world Licklider dreamed of 45 years ago. Today, so long as you’ve got a compliant browser and Internet connection — standards that the ARPAnet helped pioneer — it doesn’t matter what OS your local machine is running. Still, not even Licklider foresaw the ubiquity of computers at this early stage, as the Intergalactic Computer Network memo suggests this is a problem for linking together perhaps a dozen computers in various locations. At the time, the question was how to let terminals access any networked mainframe, not the wholesale direct connection of completely self-sufficient computers on every desktop — or laptop or palmtop, for that matter. Hey, even the likes of Taylor and Licklider can’t see everything coming.

(This does, however, put the lie to the prevailing myth that the ARPAnet was intended to nuke-proof the U.S. military’s computer systems by decentralizing them. ARPAnet was conceived for the purpose increasing communications and computing efficiency, not for making it impossible to nuke away all the military’s data. That was a side benefit.)

Still, the Intergalactic Computing Network painted a picture that ARPAnet made real, and ARPAnet evolved into the Internet we use today. So, both linguistically and literally, the Internet is derived from the Intergalactic Computing Network. That’s not just a cogent conceptual contraction; it’s a practically precognitive portion of prototypical Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

Check out this week’s quibble.

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic’s Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically sign up today!