A Brief History of Early Museums Online
Museums are in a unique position of both recording the history of human communication through networks and also using the medium to their own advantage. Fast communication of messages at long distance dates back much earlier than the Internet on which many people rely today. For example, at Masada in Israel, there are the remains of a two thousand year old columbarium tower or dovecot (see Figure 1) on the well-fortified hilltop, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which could have enabled communication with the outside world from this isolated outpost. During the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th century, in England a set of shutter telegraph links was set up from London to allow fast communication with the navy on the coast, as presented at the Royal Signals Museum (see Figure 2). Of course there was a delay as each relay station forwarded the message since line-of-sight viewing was necessary between each neighbouring location. Later in the 19th century, optical communication techniques gave way to electrical communication in the form of the electrical telegraph, using cable connections and eventually via wireless signals (see Figure 3). This has been dubbed the ‘Victorian Internet’ in the light of later developments (Standage, 1998).
In the late 20th century, telecommunications of all sorts became increasingly dominated by computer networks and specifically the Internet, which started as the ARPANET, originally in 1969 with four nodes in the US. The original connection at each node was via a computer-based Interface Message Processor (IMP), designed in the 1960s by Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc. (BBN), which provided the first packet router for the ARPANET. Communication was via packet switching protocols that became standardized as the underlying TCP/IP protocols (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), forming the universal transport layer for various application protocols. The latter include SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) for electronic mail and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) for general data transfer.
In the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, the international physics facility in Switzerland, devised the first version of the relatively simple HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) as a basis for communication of hyperlinked documents in HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and other files from remote servers for display on clients’ web browsers, as part of his newly proposed World Wide Web (Berners-Lee, 1999). This gave raise to a rapid expanse in the public use of the Internet in many different fields, including museums.
The WWW Virtual Library
As the web expanded rapidly in the early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee realised that some form of directory was needed to aid finding the various websites that were available (Gillies & Cailliau, 2000). However, the effort required for this was increasing exponentially since the web was doubling in size every few months. Arthur Secret visited CERN, joined Berners-Lee on his web project, and took over the running of the ‘Virtual Library’ of links to websites around the world (now under vlib.org). Secret became the first true ‘virtual librarian’ on the web. He realised that the maintenance of the Virtual Library could not be sustained by a single person. He was contacted by the University of Kansas and a history professor there was the first to take over a Virtual Library section in a particular area.