Internet technology gallery opens

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Internet pioneers NPL sponsor latest digital heritage display

A gallery on The Technology of the Internet will be opened today, 4th December, at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park by Brian Bowsher, Managing Director of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). The new display is sponsored by NPL, which in the 1960s developed packet-switching, a key building block of the internet.

From early telegraph links to today’s high speed internet connections, the gallery traces the history of communication technology with interactive exhibits, audio-visual displays, real-time mapping of global internet connections and an internet technology timeline.

“Now used by more than one in four of the world’s population, the internet is the phenomenon of our age and the new gallery sets out to explain the technologies that have made it possible,” said Kevin Murrell, a director and trustee of TNMOC. “We believe that this display is the first of its type anywhere in the world and are very grateful to NPL which has sponsored the gallery and contributed fascinating and until now little-known information about its pioneering work in packet-switching, a key internet building block.”

Beginning with the electronic telegraph, the gallery goes on to feature early landmark developments in circuit switching, whereby users are connected to a local switching centre, eg the telephone exchange, and provided with a circuit to another user. Examples showcased at the museum include the British European Airways (BEA) airline booking system of the 1960s, whereby 200 sales agents were connected to the central system, each with a terminal connected over a single fixed telephone line leased from the Post Office.

The development of packet-switching, led by Donald Davies at NPL, became a key building block of the internet, and is recalled on video by members of Davies’ original team. Visitors can even experience an emulation of the first demonstration packet-switching network established for NPL’s 200 users in the 1970s. It was this network which provided a clear direction to the development of the ARPANET, which led to the internet as we know it today.

Attending the gallery launch were Roger Scantlebury, Peter Wilkinson, Brian Aldous and Keith Bartlett, who worked closely with Donald Davies at The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), and were key contributors to the first NPL network, and the development of packet switching. Keith Bartlett explained:

“Packet switching involves taking data and chopping it into small pieces to transmit through the network. Each piece is separately addressed, and the recipient receives it and puts it back together. Anyone who has a router is using a packet switch - what they have in their home is a microcosm of what we built at NPL over 40 years ago.

“The key was Donald’s realisation that computer information can be sent in bursts which may be irregular. This differs from telephone communication which is time based. Interestingly, as technology developed and bandwidth increased, what was a data based communication network has become increasingly used to transfer time based information like TV and speech.”

Animations at the gallery show how networking operated in its infancy and the way it has evolved into the internet as it functions today. There are explanations of the inner workings of email, instant messaging and web browsing and a real-time feed shows the global networking pathways of users as they connect to the TNMOC website.

An overview of internet technology developments is provided by a timeline, related to events of the day, from the early 1960s to today.

“Whatever their previous knowledge of the workings of the internet, there is something for everyone in this new gallery and we expect an additional surge to the rapidly increasing number of visitors to the Museum,” concluded Kevin Murrell.

About NPL

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is one of the UK’s leading science facilities and research centres. It is a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate standards, science and technology available.

NPL occupies a unique position as the UK’s National Measurement Institute and sits at the intersection between scientific discovery and real world application. Its expertise and original research have underpinned quality of life, innovation and competitiveness for UK citizens and business for more than a century.

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