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Elizabeth Feinler

The Internet Herself (1931)

When the Arab Spring saw many North-African dictatorships being toppled, many spectators agreed: a new era of revolutions has been introduced and its primary weapon is the Internet. To answer the question of why the Internet allowed the organizing and gathering of protestors, one must have a look at its precursor. The 1969 established ARPANET was the first operational packet-switching network and equally the first network to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite. Its funder, the U.S. Department of Defense, had one demand for this communication network: it ought to survive a nuclear attack. Although contested, it is because of this that the ARPANET architecture got decentralized and distributed rather than taking the shape of a hub system with a central computer; messages passed from node to node. As a result, it would be more difficult to impose control on the entire network. Also, it would not be detrimental when one of the hubs - later called ‘routers’ - would be lost. When, in 1990, the ARPANET weaved into the Internet, this decentralization got passed along as well.

It is American information scientist Elizabeth Feinler that was the principal investigator to help run the ARPANET at the Network Information Center (NIC). After taking up the small task in 1972 of writing a handbook for its first demonstration, she saw herself becoming the centre’s manager in a mere two years. One of Elizabeth’s main objectives was to oversee the distribution of the ARPANET’s ‘white-’ and ‘yellow pages’, which were directories of people and services on the network. Moreover, the centre oversaw the Requests for Comments, describing how the network would actually work. A third task was to run the central address servers. These servers told the network where everyone was located and it was equally the go-to- place for a new address.

Elizabeth described the NIC as “prehistoric Google”. “People came to us for everything”. Indeed, she even maintained an ‘Internet hotline’ that you could call for urgent questions. Author Claire Evans recalls that, ‘if you wanted to add your computer to the early internet [...] you would call this office. And this woman would answer the phone and she was the one”. Reporter Anne Strainchamps would reply to this: “[You] are saying the Internet actually WAS a women.”

When, by the late 1980s, central address servers became obsolete, Elizabeth’s last main task at the NIC was the development of the Domain Name System. Under her auspices, top-level domain-naming scheme of .com, .edu, .mil, .org, and .net were developed and still widely used today. Upon her retirement in 1996, Elizabeth decided to become an active volunteer for the California-based Computer History Museum. Here, she takes pride in her work to save for future generations ‘the history of what has turned out to be one of the greatest inventions of the modern world’: the Internet.

Elizabeth Feinler


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