Ars Technica is syndicating a series of excerpts from Johnny Ryan's new book A History of the Internet and the Digital Future, an engrossing, well-written account of the Internet's founding and the backstory of the underlying protocols and plumbing, which draws on that rich history to make predictions about the net's future. Today's installment discusses the origin of the "RFC" or Request For Comment, which define the fundamental standards of the net:
An important piece of the network was missing: the software that would govern how computers would communicate. Graduate students at various facilities funded by the US Department of Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA) had been given the task in 1969 of developing the missing communication protocols. They formed an informal "network working group." Finding themselves working in a vacuum, the students connected to ARPANET, who had been given the task in 1969 of developing the technical protocols, also began to establish the informal protocols that would influence interpersonal communications on the Internet in general.
Uncertain of their positions within the hierarchy of the ARPANET project, the students issued notes on their protocols under the title "Request for Comments" (RFC). Steve Crocker, a graduate student who had received his bachelor's degree at UCLA only a year before, used the title Request for Comments to make the invitation to participate as open as possible, and to minimize any claim to authority that working on so crucial an aspect of the network as its protocols might imply. The first RFC document, which set the tone for the next half century of Internet culture and initiated the process to define the protocols that govern virtually all data exchange on the planet, was composed in humble circumstances. Its author recalls: "I had to work in a bathroom so as not to disturb the friends I was staying with, who were all asleep." The tone in which the RFCs were typed was distinctive.