United states history

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Few late 20th Century inventions have so profoundly changed U.S. society as the Internet.  Indeed, you are reading this vignette courtesy of internet technology.  A brief history of the Internet appears below.  

            Like so many innovations that changed the way people lived, the Internet originated in the national defense program's patronage of science and technology.  It was principally conceived in the late 1960s by a computer scientist at MIT named J. C. R. Licklider as a network that would preserve communications in the event of nuclear attack.  In the seventies, scientists and engineers at different institutions developed the essential hardware and software that would permit different types of computers and networks to communicate with each other through an intermediate service provider.  With the sponsorship of the Defense Department, a nationwide network rapidly developed among industrial and university scientists.  It was used mainly for e mail, which was pioneered in 1971 and which an authoritative 1978 report dubbed a "smashing success" that would "sweep the country."

            Between the mid 1980s and early 1990s, partly at the initiative of then Senator Al Gore, the Internet was transferred to civilian control and then opened up to commercial use.  In the meantime, scientists in Europe developed a program to retrieve information from any computer connected to the Internet by latching on to its standard address (called a "URI," for universal resource locator).  They also devised a language ("html," for hypertext markup language) for presenting text and images, and protocols ("http," for hypertext transfer protocol) for transferring them from one computer to another.  Programmers at a government computing facility in Illinois, having devised a browser, left in 1994 to develop a new, commercial version that they called Netscape.  Together, these innovations led to the birth of the World Wide Web.  After the mid 1990s, the Web spread with the freely accessible Internet across the globe.  Its diffusion was accompanied by an avalanche of companies founded to exploit it commercially, most of them with URLs that ended in the designation ".com" and were known accordingly as "dot com" companies.  By early 1999, about 74 million people, including two out of five adults, were accessing the Internet. 

Source: Pauline Maier, Inventing America: A History of the United States, vol. 2 (New York, 2003), p. 1065-1066. 



The following passage from a 1985 Los Angeles Times article describes the advent of electronic mail.  At the time electronic mail services charged $40 to sign-up or $10 for a monthly service rate.  Ironically Microsoft advertised its Word program for the Apple-Mcintosh in that section of the paper for $149.95 

            From offices in San Francisco, the Bechtel Group, Inc. coordinated its Tedi River gold mining operations around the globe in Papua New Guinea by exchanging information over a computer message network.  In Mexico agricultural scientists are using computer links to remote experimental crop stations to monitor data of new strains of wheat being grown there.  And in Dearborn, Michigan, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers coordinates plans for its annual convention and distributes abstracts of technical papers to engineers across the United States over a computer communications system.

            Today, information that might otherwise require costly long distance calls or delay for postal delivery can be exchanged across town or around the world virtually in an instant via "electronic mail"-- a computer-to-computer communications system regarded as the most revolutionary since the telegraph and telephone replaced horseback couriers more than a century ago.

            "Electronic mail will be the 21st Century version of the telex--which it clearly makes obsolete," said communications consultant Richard Miller, president of International Telematics in Palo Alto.  He predicated dramatic changers in international communications.  "It allows me, for example, to send you a message regardless of where in the world either one of us is at the time."

            Although still a fledgling industry, with revenues last year estimated at $200 million, electronic mail use is growing at an annual rate of nearly 60%--faster than any other segment of the computer industry, according to analysts.

            Last year, for example, Columbus, Ohio-based CompuServe--the nation's largest electronic mail service--doubled its subscribers to 185,000.  And Echo, a Marina del Rey-based newcomer, has established 14,000 subscribers in less than a year, adding 3,000 in the last month alone.  Today there are an estimated 1 million electronic "mailboxes" in use...

            "In the next decade electronic communication is going to become as routine as making phone calls," said Jan Lewis, an analyst for InfoCorp, a Cupertino, California-based marketing research firm.  She predicted that the average home in the mid-1990s will be equipped with a telephone with a built-in computer that will permit easy access not only to electronic mail, but to various databases, the latest stock quotes, weather reports and computerized directory assistance.  "We won't even have to memorize telephone numbers anymore," Lewis said.  

            The electronic mail concept is not new.  Back in the days when mail was delivered by horseback, telegraph--the original electronic communications system--revolutionized the way the world conducted business.  News of a gold discovery in the West, for example, could be relayed in a matter of hours to financial centers in the East.  Today, however, the computer has squeezed the hours down to milliseconds.  It is technically possible today to move the contents of an entire set of encyclopedia from a computer in Chicago to another terminal in Los Angeles in the time it takes to read this sentence.

            The increasing business use of electronic mail will affect consumer use as well. "People who use it in the office are going to want to use it at home," said Michael J Cavanagh, executive director of the Electronic Mail Association--a Washington-based industry group...citing the example of an early electronic mail network set up a few years ago through the Defense Department--a system designed for the exchange of important scientific information.  "After a time they found that there were also personal messages being exchanged like plans for Friday night poker games." said Cavanagh. 

            He conceded, however, that consumer growth will lag behind business use of electronic mail.  "More people need to buy personal computers and telephone modems for their homes," he said.  "Until they do, we'll have the same problem that the telephone had for the first few decades--that is, even if some the of earliest users had a telephone, the chances were that very few of their friends did.  So, who could they call?"  That's the case now with electronic mail," Cavanagh said. "Its consumer value will increase as the numbers of subscribes increase." 

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1985, Part VI, p. 1. 



In an article titled "Why Can't America Catch Up," James Risen offers an explanation of the success of Japanese auto manufacturers vis-à-vis their American counterparts.  The explanation describes the challenge auto manufacturers and indeed all American industry faces in an increasingly competitive world market. 

TOKYO-As the worldwide auto industry enters the 1990s, the Japanese are still holding the competitive edge over Detroit's auto makers that they first asserted more than a decade ago.  Despite a 10 year, multibillion dollar effort by the American auto industry to catch up with Japan in terms of reliability and overall quality, the Japanese are still building better cars.

            This winter, Detroit is paying an awful price for its failure to close the quality gap in the 1980s.  A free-fall plunge in car sales has forced General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to lay off tens of thousands of workers during the last few months.  A staggering 42 of 62 Big Three assembly plants are being shuttered temporarily during January.

            The Big Three auto makers have dramatically improved the quality of their cars over the last 10 years, a trend that has, at the very least, kept America in the ball game and Detroit has produced its share of winning products...  Ford's Taurus helped redefine automotive styling, while Chrysler's mini-van single-handedly created a whole new market.  But many automobile industry analysts believe the Japanese are in fact widening their quality lead once more, after several years in which Detroit did narrow the gap.

            "The quality gap is still there" warned Chris Cedergren of J. D. Power & Associates.  "The domestics are certainly improving, but the Japanese are too.  The domestics are now only about where the Japanese were in 1983 or 1984."

            Today, one of every four cars sold in America comes from the Japanese─more if the Japanese-built cars hiding behind American nameplates, Ford's Probe and Plymouth's Geo Storm, for example, are included.  The Japanese now sell more cars in America than does Ford and they are rapidly catching up with industry leader, GM.

            Ironically, the Japanese seem to have a better understanding of American consumers than the American auto companies do.  Said Cedergren, "I think the domestics, after all this time, are still out of touch with what a whole generation of car buyers─and I mean anyone under 45─wants in a product.

            Remarkably, the Japanese have kept their competitive lead during the period in which they lost their once-formidable labor-cost advantage over Detroit.  Thanks to the rise in the value of the yen relative to the dollar and a worsening labor shortage, assembly-line workers in Japan command higher wages than their counterparts in Detroit; the average Toyota worker made the equivalent of $49,000 compared to $40,000 at Ford.  The Japanese have adjusted by drastically upgrading the automation of their factories.

            Most embarrassing for auto executives in Detroit has been that they have had to watch as the Japanese have rapidly set up shop in the Midwest with plants that can approach the best quality levels of Japan─while employing the same kind of American workers that Big Three management once blamed for the poor workmanship in American cars.  "We screamed at them to come over here and build cars where they sold them, and now they are doing it─and they are still beating us," one Ford official said with a sigh.

            Why are Japanese cars still better?

            First, the Japanese can design and develop a new car much faster than American companies can.  It often takes two years longer in Detroit to develop a new model than it does in Japan─virtually assuring that Japanese cars will always seem newer, fresher and just plain better. 

            In addition, the Japanese do a better job of planning ahead for problems, placing a much greater emphasis on what they call "designing-in" quality.  When their engineers design new models, they spend a great deal of time making sure that the cars will be easy to build on the assembly line, taking a big load off their workers and their factories.

            The Japanese have also developed far more sophisticated relationships with their parts suppliers, who often perform critical research and development work for the auto makers.  By bringing their parts suppliers into their development process, the Japanese are consistently able to offer newer and better technology for much less money than Detroit.

            They have also perfected the complex art of building many different models on the same assembly line─something Detroit has never quite mastered.  In Japan, it is quite common for six different cars to be built on the same line.  That allows the Japanese to offer a wider array of new models without going to the huge expense of building new plants.

            But what may be most important is the Japanese attention to detail, which borders on the obsessive.  That willingness by both managers and line workers to focus on even the smallest problems until they are solved springs from a genuine sense of team spirit, which continues to elude Detroit's auto makers even after years of rhetoric about it.  The difference is that Japanese assembly-line workers are made to feel like a team, not through words but through deeds.  The pay gap between executives and the people on the shop floor is much smaller in Japan than in the U.S.  The chief executive of a major Japanese auto company earns only about 10 times as much as the youngest line worker; top executives in Detroit, by contrast, usually make at least 50 times as much and sometime as much as 500 times.

            Along with their fixation on detail comes a sense in Japan that quality isn't stationary.  Instead, the function of quality control in Japan is kaizen─the search for constant improvement.  So what is most frightening for Detroit today is that the Japanese are, more than ever, a moving target.

            "We are never satisfied," said Kaname Kasai, general manager of Honda's massive assembly plant in Sayama, Japan.  "We are moving now so that in the next couple of years we can open the quality gap even wider over America." 

Source:  James Risen, "Why Can't America Catch Up," Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1990. 



As the table below indicates, the United States is now a post-industrial economy.  Ford and General Motors are the fifth and six largest employers and only eight of the top twenty-five employers are primarily manufacturers.




Current (2004)

5 years ago

10 years ago



Wal-Mart Stores












United Parcel












Ford Motor






General Motors












General Electric






Home Depot












Yum Brands






Tyco International






Sears Roebuck


















United Technologies






























Berkshire Hathaway






SBC Communications






Altria Group






Kmart Holding










Source: Investor's Business Daily (September 2004).



In the following vignette historian Pauline Meier describes the emerging Al Qaeda terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden and its relationship to the Taliban, who controlled Afghanistan through the decade.           

            The sanctions against Iraq and the civilian suffering they generated, the presence of American troops on Saudi Arabian soil during and after the Gulf War, and the United States' support of Israel all angered a number of Muslims in the Middle East.  They infuriated Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi exile living in Afghanistan.  Bin Laden hated the United States enough to finance a network of terror called Al Qaeda, directed against the country.  In February 1993, four Muslim terrorists connected to bin Laden exploded a car bomb in the garage under one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.  Although they failed in their ambition to topple the tower into its twin, they succeeding in killing 6 and injuring more than 1,000.  In 1996, terrorists drove a truck bomb into an American army barracks in Saudi Arabia itself, killing 19 U.S. military service people.  And in 1998, several other suicide truck bombers blew up the American embassy in Tanzania, killing 11, and [the one] in Kenya, killing 213 Kenyan citizens and injuring thousands of civilians.

            A few hours after the attacks in 1998, President Clinton declared, "We will use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes." In an operation code named "Infinite Reach," U.S. planes attacked two targets believed to be associated with bin Laden the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, alleged to be a source of biochemical weapons, and a temporary base camp in Afghanistan, labeled by Clinton "one of the most active terrorist bases in the world."  (The owner of the plant denied that he had anything to do with bin Laden, and reporters visiting the site saw no evidence that he did.)  During the trial of the organizers of the Africa bombings, testimony indicated that bin Laden and Al Qaeda had attempted to acquire weapons of mass destruction about five years earlier.

            In 1996, the Taliban, a group of extreme Islamic fundamentalists, gained control of Afghanistan and extended their protection to bin Laden as a "guest."  In October 1999, the U.N. Security Council, alarmed, resolved to impose limited sanctions against the Taliban in an effort to force them to turn over bin Laden immediately to a country where he could be brought to justice.  The Taliban refused, and bin Laden and Al Qaeda grew bolder. A year later, terrorists linked to bin Laden attacked the USS Cole while it was anchored in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 of its crew and injuring 47.

            Between 1993 and 1999, the FBI's counterterrorism budget more than tripled, to some $300 million a year.  Still, in the wake of so many successful assaults, a number of analysts believed that the United States was inadequately on guard against the war of terrorism that was increasingly being waged against it.  Some contended that it was only a matter of time before the terrorists would strike on American shores with far greater destructive effect than they had achieved in the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. 

Source: Pauline Maier, Inventing America: A History of the United States, vol. 2 (New York, 2003), pp. 1062-1063. 


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