Networks Geeks: How They Built the Internet

19 August 2013

By Brian E Carpenter
Paperback: £15 €21.09 $19.99
E-book: £11.99 €15.46 $9.99


In Network Geeks, Brian Carpenter weaves the history of the early internet into an entertaining personal narrative. As head of CERN’s computer-networking group throughout the 1980s, he is well placed to describe the discussions, the splits, the technical specifications and countless acronyms that made up the esoteric world of networking in the early days of the internet in Europe. Just don’t expect to be spared the technical details.

Carpenter joined CERN in 1971, at a time when computers filled entire rooms, messages were relayed by paper tape or punched card and numerous local networks ran bespoke software packages around the laboratory. Simplifying the system brought Carpenter into the world of the internet Engineering Task Force – the committee charged with overseeing the development of standards for internet technology.

I enjoyed the fictional account of a meeting of the Task Force in 1996, which gives a vivid idea of the sheer number of technical issues, documents and acronyms that the group tackled. That year, traffic was doubling every 100 days. Keeping up with the pace of change and deciding which standards and protocols to use – TCP/IP or OSI? – were emotive issues. As with any new technology, there was lobbying, competition and elements of luck. Nobody knew where the internet would lead.

Carpenter’s enthusiasm is the strength of Network Geeks. He recounts his early interest in science – a childhood of Meccano and Sputnik – with an easy nostalgia and his memories of informal meetings with often-bearded computer scientists show genuine warmth. But it is no easy read. The autobiographical narrative jumps jarringly between lyrical descriptions of the author’s youth and the rather mundane details of computer networking. At times I felt I was drowning in specifics when I was really hoping for a wider view, for implications rather than specifications.

Networks Geeks reminded me that the evolution of technology can be as much down to politics and luck as to scientific advances. It gave me a great overview of the climate in the early days on the internet. At the same, the heavy layers of jargon also reminded me why I’m no computer scientist.

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