As we enter into the third season of this global pandemic, many of us have transitioned the bulk of our social lives online. And while some may still imagine a solitary hacker in their mind’s eye when they think of the internet, others envision a room crowded with people and ideas. The online space where we communicate with our families and friends, collaborate with our colleagues, and stay updated on the ever-evolving political environment, was and is built with the help and leadership of countless women. One such woman was Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler, who made enormous contributions to the internet we use today through her work with ARPANET. While the deficit of women in STEM fields is well-documented, Feinler’s impact is tangible in the Internet we use today.
Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPA) was formed in the late 1960s as a part of the U.S. Defense Department in an effort to create a decentralized network of computers connected by telephone lines. Despite its genesis as a military initiative, ARPANET was utilized primarily to share and develop research, thanks, in large part, to Joseph Carl Licklider’s directorship of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) in 1962-1964.
While limited networks did allow users to communicate across the country, computers often had different and incompatible systems which hampered their connectivity. In 1967, Robert Taylor, the then-Director of IPTO, proposed a single-language protocol that would allow communication between larger networks. He and his peers viewed these networks not only as a research asset, but as a social boon. In 1968, Taylor and Licklider published “The Computer as Communication Device” announcing this intention. As predicted, ARPANET did organically mutate into a hub for workplace chatter as the network grew, eventually spanning from coast to coast and even to Hawaii. We can see Licklider and Taylor’s vision illustrated in the ARPANET Logical Maps from 1969, 1971, and 1977 which show expanding network links between numerous research institutions including MIT, Stanford University, Xerox PARC, and the Pentagon.
In 1969, right as the network was beginning to grow, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler was working for SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute), one of the first institutions included in the ARPANET. She was hired to work specifically at the Network Information Center (NIC). At first her job was to create a resource handbook, something tangible to share at a conference. But, her role quickly developed as her work was deemed an investment into the larger community. As editor of the ARPANET Resource Handbook, Feinler became an expert on all things ARPANET. She compiled and wrote documentation to help users access and use ARPANET, maintained a directory of the ever-expanding network of computers, and developed and documented standards for its use. For a time, her team even ran a 24/7 telephone hotline to help users.
Feinler continued to advance her career at SRI, eventually managing a team of over 40 employees which received a massive $11 million in funding. Her meticulous work benefitted researchers across the country in building on one another’s work, experimenting with networks, and developing collegial relationships.
Feinler remained at SRI until she retired in 1989, shortly before ARPANET was decommissioned. Still, the global network she helped sustain and enrich for ever-broadening users is what became the backbone of our modern internet. In fact, the top-level domain names that we are so familiar with now—.com, .gov, .org, .net, and .edu—are all thanks to Feinler and her team!
Today, Tech Scholars @ New-York Historical Society aims to uplift the stories of women like Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler and cultivate even more groundbreaking, women-led STEM contributions by inviting high school girls to learn to code unique digital projects about influential events and figures from women’s history. The program combines the digital humanities focus of our Tech Commons with the trailblazing research and exhibitions of our Center for Women’s History. If you or someone you know is interested in getting involved, you can learn more about Tech Scholars and register online!
Written by Lena Sawyer, Manager of Teen Programs, New-York Historical Society