Harvard, Connected: The Houses Got Internet

By Phelan Yu
By Mai-Linh Ton

In 1992, Harvard students logged in.

The stage had been set for almost a decade. Experimental Internet technologies grew exponentially throughout the 1980s, and in 1985 Bill Gates launched the first edition of Microsoft Windows. A year later, science fiction writer William F. Gibson coined the portmanteau “cyberspace.” In 1991, the World Wide Web debuted, marking the birth of the consumer Internet.

The Network

Network technology at Harvard, however, was in place long before the start of the University’s student access network. In the early 70s, Harvard built a connection to ARPANET—a Defense Department-sponsored network—which connected computers located at universities across the country.

Scott O. Bradner, a former senior technology consultant for the University who helped design its early networks, said that at the time, Harvard’s network infrastructure was limited to connections between the source of Harvard’s ARPANET link—the former Aiken Computer Lab, the Science Center, and William James Hall. Until 1983, access to ARPANET was strictly restricted to researchers receiving federal funding, Bradner said.

“There was only one connection to it,” Bradner said, “It was small, it was low-bandwidth: 56 kilobits… It was great for email, but not for a great deal of other things.”

In 1986, the National Science Foundation launched the expanded NSFNET to connect researchers to the NSF’s supercomputers. According to Bradner, this prompted the University to begin working on its own internal data connections.

“It was only in ’86 that the infrastructure got put in at the national level to support any kind of reasonable data network, other than the original ARPANET,” Bradner said.

In January 1986, the University linked 13 Faculty of Arts and Sciences buildings with data cables. This was followed by proposals to connect the entire University to the Internet, which coincided with plans to overhaul the University’s telephone system.

“Starting in ’92, there was a major effort to get fiber to most of the buildings in Boston and Cambridge,” Bradner said. “It was a big project. It was [about] 95 buildings... It was expensive. OIT [Office of Information Technology] borrowed against the endowment to do it.”

Around the same time, the commercial Internet was expanding, particularly with the 1989 launch of NEARNET —a collaboration between Harvard, MIT, and Boston University—to provide a network for academic, government, and industry use in the greater Boston and New England area.

“A fellow from MIT, a fellow from BU, and I got together and decided that we could do something better: a microwave-based, Boston Basin internet… It was called NEARNET,” Bradner said. “It never had a commercial exclusion. The ARPANET and the NSFNET both had exclusions for commercial traffic."

By the early 90s, NEARNET had more than 200 members in six different states.

'The Milieu'

But if the internet’s ubiquity might cause most people to overlook its presence today, the relative obscurity of Harvard’s “high speed data network” in 1992 caused some students to disregard its significance at first. Several class of 1992 alumni did not use the Harvard network, or even recall its presence during their time at Harvard.

Eric T. Eads ’92, a former resident of Leverett House, described he and his roommates as being initially amused by the large number of data ports in the rooms.

A 1992 ad in the Harvard Crimson.
A 1992 ad in the Harvard Crimson. By No Writer Attributed

“We thought it was so funny… we didn’t know what to do with them,” Eads said with a laugh.

Mark W. Jacobstein ’92, who was a computer science concentrator, said that while he “vaguely” recalled discussions about connecting the University, he did not start using the Internet until after he graduated.

“In 1992, not everyone even had a computer,” Jacobstein said, “I don’t know that we would have known what to do with a network… Your friends didn’t have email addresses at other colleges, it just wasn’t part of the milieu.”

C. Eric Rosenblum ’92 and N. Edwin Aoki ’92, fellow students studying computer science, also noted that they did not use the Internet or the network during their time at Harvard.

Bradner remarked that “it took a number of years” after 1992 to fully expand internet access to all of the dorms. And while not all in the class of 1992 had the chance to use the Internet at Harvard, future students certainly did.

Back to the Future

A 1993 op-ed written by Crimson editor Haibin B. Jiu ’94 noted an “explosive growth” in network users, remarking that over 68 percent of the class of 1997 had registered for email accounts with the University.

Indeed, much of the traffic in early years of the network was driven by students transferring pirated music.

“When the ethernet got rolled out, there was certainly a lot a popularity. Unfortunately, a lot of that was for music sharing. And Harvard, like any higher-ed institution, has had its troubles with the RIAA complaining that students are stealing music,” Bradner said with a chuckle.

The rise in the popularity of network services at Harvard paralleled the Internet’s swift global rise. By 1993, there were over 14 million internet users and 130 websites worldwide.

At Harvard, a 1995 faculty committee called for every staff and faculty member to have access to a computer and the Internet by summer of the next year.

Harry R. Lewis '68, a professor in the Computer Science department, pushed to expand internet access at Harvard.
Harry R. Lewis '68, a professor in the Computer Science department, pushed to expand internet access at Harvard. By Amanda M. DiMartini

Among the administrative figures in the effort to expand internet access at Harvard were former Dean of the Division of Applied Sciences Paul C. Martin ’51 and then-Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.

Bradner said that Lewis, who also served as faculty advisor to the athletic department, insisted that the athletic buildings be included as part of the internet roll-out around campus.

“It’s a little hard to imagine the Harvard campus without internet and email—and that of course even that was before mobile phones,” Lewis said. “The crew [team] used to post their rowing schedules in the window of Leavitt and Pierce. Rowers used to get up in the morning and go look in the window to see what times they were out.”

Around 2000, Harvard’s network bandwidth tripled from 45 to 115 megabits per second, in response to high user demand. WiFi, which the University introduced on campus in 2001, was extended to the houses and dorms in 2004.

Nonetheless, there still appears to be room for growth. Current undergraduates often gripe about the intermittent WiFi quality around campus, sometimes airing their frustration through memes in Facebook groups.

“There have been dead-spots all over the place,” Mounir M. Jamal ’17 said. “If you were in my bedroom, the WiFi’s OK, and then if you go to the bathroom, it’s nonexistent.”

Students have complained of W-Fi disconnections and outages on campus.
Students have complained of W-Fi disconnections and outages on campus. By Stella Y. Wong

“I wouldn’t really count on it in the Quad Yard,” Jamal, who is a Pforzheimer resident, added.

Last week, CS50 course instructor David J. Malan ’99 enlisted the help of CS concentrators and other undergraduates to help the University identify WiFi dead-spots. In an email, Malan asked students to enter the location of WiFi issues in a Google Form.

When asked if he would be submitting complaints via Malan’s form, Jamal replied in the affirmative.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Jamal said with a laugh.

—Staff writer Hannah Natanson contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Phelan Yu can be reached at phelan.yu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @phelanyu.

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Computer ScienceTechnology