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The roots of the 'Net: .mil and .edu

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 24, 2004
(Issue 2239, A Wireless World)

When the first Internet domains were adopted 20 years ago, the Internet was not yet public and Timothy Berners-Lee had yet to develop his hyper-linked World Wide Web standards.

Before adoption of the generic Top Level Domains – the now-familiar .com and .net extensions we type into e-mail addresses and Web page URLs – you had to know a computer's network address in order to access it.

It was about as user-friendly and intuitive as Unix, DOS or VaxNotes.

Of course, since there was no Web, and the Internet wasn't open to the general public, the only online activities available to the government, military and university researchers who were on the 'Net were sending e-mail, remotely logging in or doing text-based searches with tools like Gopher and Archie.

And even then, the only documents posted online that you could search were university, government and military research papers. Much as with Google's nice but hardly revolutionary Gmail service, the allure of the Internet back then was largely in the fact that was off-limits to most of us.

Growth and organization

The 'Net was begun in the late 1960s, and, as mentioned, the only computers on what was originally called ARPANet were those of universities with government research contracts, and the corresponding government and military computers.

But even by the late 1970s, it was apparent that this by-now 'Internet' thing was going to be around for a long, long time; that it was something new and still developing.

And so the folks running the 'Net back then began looking at new ways to organize this growing network of computers.

By 1984, they'd arrived at the Domain Name Service, or DNS, and generic Top Level Domains, or GTLDs.

Among the first batch of domains were two set aside for non-public use: .mil and .edu.

Most of us are familiar with the .edu domain. At first, only four-year universities were eligible, but now any accredited post-secondary educational organization is eligible. From to, most colleges and universities now have a .edu address for potential students and alumni to find them.

The military online

For an organization that obviously relies on a bit of secrecy in its mission to protect us, the Pentagon is a remarkably busy presence on the Internet.

The U.S. military's main web site is at Each of the four services has its own home page –,, and (Their recruiting efforts are generally under .com domains – or, for instance.) Even the Coast Guard, which isn't part of the Department of Defense except in times of war, has a .mil domain – (and a recruiting site at

From these sites, you can actually learn quite a bit about what your tax dollars are being spent on. Most larger military units will have their own unit Web site. You can also learn where most military installations are, as each of the services has links to its different units and installations.

Since 9/11, there have reportedly been mass purges of information from government Web sites, including the .mil domain. But there remains an incredibly deep pool of information on these sites – a mark of our open society and government, I suppose.

Besides, you couldn't really keep a large military base secret – can anyone say 'Roswell'?

Last vacation note

While driving cross-country this summer, I saw about the oddest sight I've ever seen: A Web site advertised on the side of a barn.

Hagan Barn Art has a huge barn off the Interstate 70 east of Columbus, Ohio, painted up advertising the site.

When you go to the site, you find that one Scott Hagan makes his living painting barns for farmers and, I suppose, anyone else who finds themself with a barn on their hands.

But rather than a coat of plain red, he goes for the big picture on the big wall approach – like the old Mail Pouch ads some farmers use to let that chewing tobacco company place on their barns. For a fee, of course. And the closer your barn is situated to a major byway, the more coin you can get, I'd suppose.

Hagan doesn't seem to sell the advertising itself – he simply paints the message on the barn.

Still, folks have been painting messages on barns at least since the automobile began traversing the country a century ago. And now these barn painters are able to extend their reach from the corn fields to the Internet.