Review of Inventing the Internet

Inventing the Internet
Janet Abbate
MIT Press

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

January 14, 2001

As a consequence of any explosive phenomenon, and the Internet certainly qualifies, over time a smaller percentage of those who are involved remember the early events and culture that came before them. Despite the Internet revolution being all about access to diverse information, it has done a remarkably poor job of chronicling its own history. As the generation that began work on the very beginnings of the Internet pass through middle age and beyond, it is important to capture their first hand accounts of the history they made. Tragically, first hand sources have already begun to be lost to us. Janet Abbate contributes to the preservation of the early history of the Internet in her book, Inventing the Internet.

Abbate divides the book into 6 sections. The first might be called the Internet pre-history, covering pre-ARPANET data communications and the origins of packet switching. The second covers the political and technical challenges involved in linking the very first ARPANET nodes. The third section covers user communities and their affect on the ARPANET. The fourth discusses the conversion between ARPANET and Internet. The fifth section talks about the interaction between the IP world and international standardization efforts. The final section covers the beginning of the institutional, popularization of the Internet, but leaves off before the Internet connectivity becomes popular at the personal level. All in all, the book covers the developments in Internet history between about 1959 and 1991, with selective coverage up through about 1994.

In my opinion, the first section is significantly less clearly written than the last five. If the reader finds the first section a little stiff, I would urge them to press on to at least the third section to get a more thorough feel for the way the book progresses. Even so, while the book is quite readable, this is not a mass market account of Internet history. In my opinion, it's slightly more academic than Peter Salus' Casting the Net.

The third section, on how the user community influenced the ARPANET, covers much of the same ground as Netizens. Even though Netizens is entirely focused on the early network communities, Inventing the Internet contains information not found in that book, plus Abbate's writing at this point in her book flows better. Of course, Netizens also contains a great deal of information not mentioned in Inventing the Internet.

Overall, this is a good book on this topic. Certainly, it's a welcome addition to the literary corpus on the history of data networking. While it isn't focused on a mass market audience, and although it starts off a bit stiff, Inventing the Internet should be readable and enjoyable by anyone with an interest in the origins and the early years of the Internet.


A welcome addition to the small number of books that chronicle the history of the Internet. Academic, but not unfathomably so, Inventing the Internet should prove worthwhile to any reader with an interest in the topic.

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