From Modest Beginnings
In the 1970s, the sharing of expensive computing resources, such as mainframes, was causing a bottleneck in the development of new computer science technology, so engineers developed networking as a way of sharing resources.
The original networking was limited to a few systems, including the university system that linked terminals with time-sharing computers, early business systems for applications such as airline reservations, and the Department of Defense's ARPANET. Begun by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1969 as an experiment in resource-sharing, ARPANET provided powerful (high-bandwidth) communications links between major computational resources and computer users in academic, industrial, and government research laboratories.
Inspired by ARPANET's success, the Coordinated Experimental Research Program of the Computer Science Section of NSF's Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate started its own network in 1981. Called CSNET (Computer Science Network), the system provided Internet services, including electronic mail and connections to ARPANET. While CSNET itself was just a starting point, it served well. "Its most important contribution was to bring together the U.S. computer science community and to create the environment that fostered the Internet," explains Larry Landweber, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and a CSNET principal investigator. In addition, CSNET was responsible for the first Internet gateways between the United States and many countries in Europe and Asia.
From the outset, NSF limited the amount of time it would support CSNET. By 1986, the network was to be self-supporting. This was a risky decision, because in 1981 the value of network services was not widely understood. The policy, which carried forward into subsequent NSF networking efforts, required bidders to think about commercialization from the very start. When the 1986 deadline arrived, more than 165 university, industrial, and government computer research groups belonged to CSNET. Usage charges plus membership fees ranged from $2,000 for small computer science departments to $30,000 for larger industrial members. With membership came customer support.