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The 1980s

The 1980s are remembered as the time computers truly changed our everyday lives. Companies such as Atari, Apple, Commodore, and IBM began producing small, affordable computers designed to help people perform everyday tasks like typing letters, balancing their checkbooks, and playing games. By the end of the decade, these 'personal computers' or PCs, were becoming as common as washing machines in many American homes, and millions of workers' jobs revolved around a desktop PC.
At the same time, incredibly powerful supercomputers were being developed at universities and laboratories. Realizing the potential of these supercomputers to empower scientific research, in 1984 NSF opened supercomputer centers across the country and created a network to link them together. Almost as soon as they were developed, NSF began thinking of new ways to allow even more researchers to tap the power these supercomputers had to offer.


Computers Get Personal... Powerful

Credit: NSF

Diagram showing the core of the Internet in August 1987. In a few short years, ARPANET would cease to exist, and the NSFNET backbone would become the center of the Internet. Credit: Courtesy of BBN Technologies

TCP/IP Sets the Standard

Across the world, researchers and scientists began to build their own large computer networks. Although many attempted to develop their own protocols and technologies to run their networks, the tools and concepts developed by researchers in the 1970s–such as TCP/IP and packet switching–became widely adopted. These tools worked because they were relatively simple, flexible, and easily adopted. Having many networks based on similar protocols would eventually make it easier to link them together, and since no one owned a patent or trademark on TCP/IP, networks were able to use TCP/IP with a range of equipment and software.
By the beginning of the decade, the Department of Defense made it clear they did not want to run a national computer network that wasn't directly related to defense work. This opened up the demand for a large and robust network open to all, a role filled by NSFNET.


The Demand for New Networks

In the early 1980s, NSF had several initiatives running to help spread the benefits of networking. One of these efforts was called CSNET, and it linked together several computer science departments across the country using TCP/IP. Another was a network of regional computer networks that linked up universities in different parts of the country. In 1981, universities came together to form BITNET, which allowed thousands of new users to experience innovations such as email and file transfers for the first time. All of these new networks showed the possibilities of computer networks and helped stoke demand for a robust nationwide network like NSFNET.


Credit: NSF


NSFNET is Born

In the mid-1980s, NSF decided the time was right to try to link its regional university networks and its supercomputer centers together. This initial effort was called NSFNET. By 1987, participation in the new NSFNET project grew so rapidly that NSF knew it had to expand the capacity of this new network. In November of that year, it awarded a grant to a consortium of IBM, MCI, and a center at the University of Michigan called Merit to create a network or networks–or inter-net–capable of carrying data at speeds up to 56 kilobits a second. By July, 1987, this new system was up and running. The modern Internet was born.


Credit: NSF


Private-Public Innovation

When NSF set out to create NSFNET, it wanted to avoid the same limitations and restrictions that ARPANET had. NSF decided that the network should eventually become financially self-sustaining and not dependant on government funding or control. At the same time, NSF wanted the network to be able to grow quickly and accommodate as many users as possible.
NSF came up with an innovative way to satisfy both requirements by awarding the NSFNET grant to a team of private companies and public universities. By giving private industry an incentive to participate in–but not control–the network, and by encouraging anyone who wished to join the network to connect, NSF laid the groundwork for the Internet's future success and explosive growth.


Credit: Courtesy of Hans-Werner Braun


NSFNET Grows a Backbone

As soon as that initial upgrade of NSFNET was made in 1988, it was almost immediately overwhelmed by new demand as more users came online. Soon the network grew at 10% a month pace. NSF began funding more upgrades to the system's backbone–the connection lines between the network's major hubs.
During the late 1980s, the NSFNET partners worked to find ways to accommodate this growth. Their work laid the groundwork for the Internet's future growth.


Credit: Courtesy of Hans-Werner Braun


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.