Computer History Analysis
By Bob Bemer

This paper is abstracted from notes for an article about the suit that British Telecommunications PLC (known as British Telecom, and informally as BT) filed in late 2000 vs. Prodigy Communications Corp., the first Internet Service Provider, claiming extensive rights to many aspects of the Internet and the Worldwide Web.

That action caused considerable furor in the computer community, with much calumny directed at both British Telecom and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The objections were basically that most of the network components were never given patent protection because they had been developed primarily in the United States and were either placed in the public domain or else funded by the U.S. Government on taxpayer monies. Whereas British Telecom was, at the time of the patent, a UK government agency, part of the Post Office.

In late August of 2002, knowledgeable Judge Colleen McMahon of the Southern New York Division of the U. S. District Courts, White Plains, NY, ruled definitively against British Telecom for a variety of reasons, mainly that their patent, even if valid in some respects, applied to a single central computer, not apply to a distributed network of such.

When British Telecom obtained the original patent in 1976, ARPANET, precursor of the Internet, had 111* different host computers at different locations working and talking together -- not just one! In short, BT's system was an archipelago (a group of islands with just the one central computer). Hardly "worldwide"! And when the corresponding U.S. patent was granted in 1989, the Internet already had 56,000* different computers linked and working together!

One would think that someone at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would have noticed these facts in the 1989 granting of the notorious BT patent.

By the time of this ruling, the outcome had been predictable for a long period of time, and public interest had waned to a point where national magazines found no general public demand for such a story. However, a question remained about the usefulness of such information for the historical record, for the reason that although purported timelines of critical Internet/Web developments exist, on and off the Web, many are flawed, and mostly seen from the view of the hardware or the simplest class of user. The real origin of one of the most important parts -- clicking the mouse get a new page -- is still not known to technicians!

What follows is the "real" story, possibly new to the public. It is an authoritative chronology of mechanisms and concepts (not necessarily final developments). Sort of a "without THIS, no THAT".

*(Source: D. Kristula, "The History of the Internet".)


(Steps to the Internet and Web)

Here are the major enabling innovations and concepts for the Internet and WorldWide Web of today. Note that, with very few exceptions, most of the innovators were United States citizens, and most of the funds supporting development came from U.S. companies and the U.S. Government (thus from its citizens). From here on, each name listed for some innovation is that of a U.S. citizen unless noted otherwise.

Using a Computer You Cannot Touch
1940 -- Dr. George Stibitz, Bell Labs

No Internet or Web customer is "hardwired" to use it. A connection must be made between the keyboard/screen unit used and some "intelligent port" of the Internet that switches to some participating computer. Much of this connection is done via commercial communications systems (wire, cable, radio, satellite). And it has to carry binary codes for alphabets and such.

Teletype equipment of 1940 could do that, and that is what Stibitz used, in his Dartmouth College lecture on Sep 11 of 1940, to connect with his primitive relay (no, not electronic) computer in New York City to do a small computing task to show that it was possible.

Patent Situation: Any patent would be expired and in the public domain now.

(Can find Stibitz pictures via Google - I like the one where he is holding "huge" components on a board).

Recognition That People Don't Think (in) Straight (Paths)
1945 -- Dr. Vannevar Bush, MIT and Carnegie Institution

Bush, Director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, had an article entitled "As We May Think" in the 1945 July issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine. The major drawback was that languages other than English were not yet treated fully. But this paper is often quoted as the major philosophical stimulus for the Worldwide Web.

(Pics on the Web at THOCP.NET).

The Communications Network
1952 -- ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), U.S. Dept. of Defense

Dr. J. C. R. Licklider of Bolt Beranek & Newman shaped the goals and spirit of this work, especially as it looked far ahead to the future, while the major computer and communications companies had other fish to fry.

Patent Situation: The work was intended for defense systems, and patents were not sought.

Computer Operating Systems
1955 -- SHARE (an IBM user group), and IBM itself

Operating Systems were needed to specify the particular computing process that one planned for the huge and expensive early computers. The computer itself would read and interpret these commands like an instruction booklet, far faster than asking the user for decisions while the work was in process.

Operating systems persisted, and Microsoft started with one such, named MSDOS.

Buried invisibly, when you click the mouse and other controls, are such operating system commands, like "display the file named ...".

Timesharing - Equipment
1956/7 -- US Department of Defense SAGE Project

Here multiple machines/systems were controlled simultaneously by a central machine.

Timesharing - Users
1957 -- Bob Bemer, IBM

He published, in the 1957 March issue of Automatic Control Magazine, "How to consider a computer", a description of the way that many people could use a single large computer simultaneously with the illusion that they were the only one using it. (inspiration courtesy Bob's Big Boy short order carousel for the cook, circa 1940).

Other descriptions were by Walter Bauer, Informatics, in December of 1958, and
Christopher Strachey, UK, in June of 1959.

Patent Situation: IBM took no action on Bemer, probably fearing that such a course would decrease their revenue. Despite precedent, Strachey filed for a timesharing patent in February of 1959, granted as British Patent No. 924672 in 1963. Strachey died in 1975, and we have heard no more. It would now be expired, and Strachey himself said his scheme was not what we now consider timesharing to be.

The Hypertext Concept
1960 -- Ted Nelson, Harvard U.

In addition to coining the term "hypertext" for the elements of his vision, Nelson was the ultimate publicist and enigmatic evangelist for new means of computer-aided thinking, which did not mean the Web as we know it know.

Nelson's project was called "Xanadu", and although several parts of it did get to a working stage (programmed in the TRAC language), it never got to total completion.

A major impetus to the world of personal computers was his book "Computer Lib", written in 1974, long before PCs existed.


The McGraw-Hill book "Fire in the Valley" says that when Nelson and Doug Engelbart (see that entry for 1965) were onstage together in 1998, "the audience was viewing the prophets of two rival religions", for Nelson does not admit (from his Japanese website) to this day that the Worldwide Web is how he envisioned his still unfinished Xanadu project to work.

Provision for Off-the-Record Action: (Escape and Hypertext)
1960 -- Bob Bemer, IBM

In the Communications of ACM (1960 Feb), his "A proposal for character code compatibility" was the genesis of the Escape character (see that key on the upper left of your keyboard) and escape sequences. It was meant first to identify uniquely all the old codes that ASCII would replace, to avoid hardships in the existing world of Babel, and make the adoption of ASCII less painful or daunting. It was a switching concept -- "from here on we're going to talk in obsolete UNIVAC code".

Then escape sequences, being so general, were found to have use for such actions as changing colors on the screen, changing type sizes and fonts, and driving all kinds of control actions. Thus they shouldn't be visible or print, so the convention became to suppress those actions when the first escape character and its sequence were encountered. From this to hiding the URL address for hyperlink jumps was a trivial step.

Patent Situation: The escape character is integral to the ASCII character set, so it will always remain in the public domain.

Common Standards for All Computers and Communications to Use
1961-1966 -- IBM Vice President Jim Birkenstock, aided by IBM V.P. John McPherson

They created the first effective infrastructure to achieve computer standards. To intercommunicate worldwide, you have to know what language(s) you are speaking in, when, and what dialect you are using, if any. And all people, all computers, and all communications equipment must operate that way.

They did it by creating BEMA, the Business Equipment Manufacturer's Association, to be the sponsor for American Standards Association work for computers and information processing, and got ASA, on 1961 January 13, to create the X3 committee to do the work. Bob Bemer of IBM had exposed the existing flaws with a survey of about 60 different ways that various computers of that time encoded and represented the Roman alphabet and associated symbols (IBM itself had 9 of these!). In short, none of the existing computer types could talk to each other. Babel!

The most critical words of Bemer's plan of action for X3 were:

"[To develop] a single standard for logical representation of characters and character format in the media used for interchange of instruction, data, and control information between data processing equipments, together with orderly provision for expansion and alternatives ..."

After a huge amount of work this led to ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), which most computers, and certainly all PCs, use internally and externally, worldwide. The U.S. Dept. of Commerce said recently:

"Most modern developments in the computer field, such as the Internet, would not have been possible without this underlying [ASCII] code."

To see that survey itself, CLICK here

Patent Situation: ASCII and all other X3 and related standards are in the public domain, worldwide, because the work eventually became international in scope, carried out under ISO (International Standards Organization) sponsorship.

Ensuring Computer Standards Work for All Countries
1961 -- Cyril G. Holland-Martin, ICT (Intl. Computers & Tabulators), UK

When he caused the formation of ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Assn.), the movement to computer standards, intercommunication, and working together went to the international level, with both ECMA and U.S. groups required to agree before adopting any new standard.

Included were programming languages, ASCII and national variants, and coded data elements (e.g., CH means Switzerland, ZA means South Africa). We find such codes in the Worldwide Web addresses, and on the envelopes we use for surface mail.

The remarkably beneficial efforts of ECMA were strikingly due to Dara Hekimi of Switzerland, their superb Secretary General for 30 years.

Inviting the Whole World to Participate in Computer Standards Work
1961 -- Olle Sturen, Swedish Standards Body

Sturen's goal was to ensure that any difficulties the entire world might have with computer standards would be resolved before being adopted irrevocably. He held an ISO Round Table on this topic in Geneva. It led to both the formation of ISO Technical Committee 97 on Computers and Information Processing Standards, and his own position as Secretary General of ISO for many years.

Multilanguage Alphabet System and Registry
1960-1975 -- Bob Bemer,, IBM

In 1963 articles in Datamation Magazine about the newly-created standard code ASCII, Bemer made the first public proposal for sets alternate to that code, in line with the wording for "orderly provision for expansion and alternatives".

Although there was so much recalcitrance that this system did not go into effect until 1975, it is now a standard component of the Internet. Each such registered alternate to ASCII has an unique escape sequence assigned to it. If, in the stream of characters coming to your PC, the escape sequence for Cyrillic appears, the text following it is likely to be Russian and will thus display with those characters, on the screen or from your laser printer.

How can the Web be Worldwide unless it works for everybody's language and alphabet?

Interestingly, the code for the BT patent is NOT ASCII! It is special alphabet Number 047 in this registry of alternates, possibly because their special set has no underscore character! Did BT tell that to the judge?

Patent Situation: This project was undertaken by both international and national standards bodies, and cannot be separated from ASCII. Thus forever in the public domain.

Packet-Switching as the Main Network Engine
1962 -- Paul Baran, RAND Corporation

Information must move on a network in the fastest way, the most secure way (don't lose it), and the most general and failsafe way. This is the most critical choice in network design. And it has kept on working well.

The Point and Execute Concept
1964 -- Calvin Mooers, Rockford Research

This relatively unknown participant in the specification of ASCII created the concept of the hypertext function (which he called the "active function"), and had it working as a part of his programming language "TRAC". His paper about it, published in the Communications of the ACM of 1966 April, did not surprise those who knew him as the person who coined the very phrase "Information Retrieval", which applies 100% to the Internet action of "fetch" and "display" the "item with this name".

In a paper called "TRAC, A Procedure-Describing Language for the Reactive Typewriter", at the ACM Programming Languages and Pragmatics Conference in August of 1965, he said:

"These (active) functions permit forms to be moved to and from the main memory ... They also permit one to build a "storage tree .."
Is this not precisely the storage tree of the Internet, where the hyperlinks have a storage tree, and where movements to one file or another of the remembered "tree" are triggered by the "forward" and "back" icon?. Of course the "main memory" has been much enlarged by the network design.

His abstract said:

"In TRAC ... one can write procedures ... for treating any string at any time as an executable procedure ..."

The hidden "fetch and display this" string that brings you a story from the Manchester Guardian in the UK is such an executable procedure.




Patent Situation: No patents were sought by Mooers. He didn't like their insufficient protection, and vowed to use copyrights instead. Besides, he acknowledged that his work was done under contract to ARPA (contract SD-295), Air Force Office of Scientific Research AF-AFOSR 476, 477, and 462-75, and U.S. Public Health Service Grant GM 10416 - all agencies of the Federal Government, thus paid for by the people of the United States! So it is all in the public domain.

First Live Working Model of Hypertext and Links in Action
1965 -- Douglas Engelbart, Stanford Research Institute

This is the project that should have given BT pause. Engelbart, inventor of the handheld "mouse", had the design for a hypertext system so far along that he was able to show a movie of it in action at the Spring Joint Computer Conference in Boston in 1965!

That's right! A movie showing everything in action just as British Telecom claimed they described in their British patent 11 years later! And in their U.S. patent 24 years later!

The paper by D. C. Engelbart, "Study for the Development of Human Intellect Augmentation Techniques", Quarterly Technical Letter Report 1, covering the period 8 February through 7 May 1966, Stanford Research Institute Project 5890, is the project summary for:

Contract NAS1-5904,
National Aeronautics and Space Administration,
Langley Research Center,
Langley, Virginia 23365

In this document, the TRAC system of Calvin Mooers is mentioned.

Among five entities noted as having been given copies of all movies and slides was the United Kingdom Scientific Mission, represented by F.M. Blanke (so the British cannot claim ignorance of prior work).

Patent Situation: No patents were sought for work done under U.S. Govt. sponsorship. The mouse itself was patented, as a low-cost mechanical product. Today's conditions prevail.

First Software Patent
1968 -- Martin Goetz, ADR

Considered by some to be a Pandora's Box-type event, leading to inhibitions on Web development and improvement, and by others as the birth and life support of the separate software industry.

Markup Language
1970 -- Charles Goldfarb, IBM

"Markup Language", a major component of "hypertext", invented in 1969 by Goldfarb, was shown to the world as GML in 1970, but never patented (the U.S. Congress had not yet gotten so silly as to permit patenting languages). It was renamed SGML by 1975.

When an Internet file is displayed, one is likely to see its (hyperlink) address (from whence it was obtained) at the top of the screen. Often the final letters are ".htm" or ".html", meaning that it is in HyperText Markup Language form, which is a major component of "hypertext"!.

Thus "HyperText Markup Language", the first word due to Ted Nelson, the second two words due to Goldfarb.

British Telecom claimed that their 1976 patent covered "hypertext", but here we see that process in the public domain from 1970!


Patent Situation: Absolutely safe with the failure of the British Telecom suit.

The First E-mail Message
1971 -- Ray Tomlinson, Bolt Beranek & Newman

Tomlinson was involved as an employee of this contractor, in its task to build the ARPANET. He follows other first-messagers Samuel Morse (telegraph), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), and Guglielmo Marconi (wireless) into fame. And even higher usage. In fact, the highest usage on the Internet is probably that for e-mail! And there is even a movie based on it.

Making Big Networks out of Smaller Ones
1973 -- Vinton Cerf, Stanford U., Robert Kahn, DARPA

Cerf and Kahn developed the "TCP/IP" protocol, which enabled the great number of existing different networks to all be interconnected by the same rules and procedures. When this was all completed in 1974, Cerf called the result the "Internet".

Video Terminals Everywhere

It's a good thing that everyone started to put display tubes on terminals everywhere around the beginning of the '80s. It was getting difficult to click on text coming out of a typewriter unit, and that function is very critical to today's usage. No particular inventor or manufacturer stands out uniquely for this improvement.

Patent Situation: About all original video terminal patents have run out. New hardware patents will be seen, but such products might be hard to sell if they are logically different from what exists. In which case we can get along with what exists.

A Single Post Office and Library for the Whole World!
1990 -- Tim Berners-Lee and crew at CERN, Geneva, CH

Berners-Lee's contribution is that he repackaged the Internet, Hypertext, HTML, and the URL (Universal Resource Locator) system to all work seamlessly together -- a concept so seemingly simple that people at first did not see it for the giant advance that it was. But then the users convinced them.

He called it the "Worldwide Web", and so it still is!

Searching the Web
199- -- Google (Larry Page & Sergey Brin) and Other Engines

The effectiveness of the Worldwide Web depends upon being able to find the page you want to see. It may be already referenced on your screen, needing only a mouse click to display. But that is rare. There are over THREE (American) billion pages available on the Web, all with a different address, most with different content. What would anyone do without a search engine assistant to give clues to?

MOSAIC, from the University of Illinois in late 1996, was the first actual WEB searcher to gain general use, but the Google search method is so far superior that it qualifies as a totally different and new concept.

Without search engines, the Web might collapse from its own complexity.

Patent Situation: Individual patents may have been obtained for their processes, but as this is a Web "application", not a Web "component", the user or service provider is safe.

What Does This History Tell Us?

Several Things:

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