What is the Internet?
(the short version)

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The Internet is a worldwide network of computers. There are now about 21 million people who can access the Internet. Using the tools outlined below, you can get information from anywhere in the world in seconds!

The main backbone or network in the U.S. is the National Research and Education Network (NREN), a product of the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, pushed through Congress by then-Senator Al Gore. It was designed to help the K12 and college communities become part of the Internet more easily.

Swarthmore College is directly on the Internet: there is an open live connection via a leased line (like a phone line, but open all the time) to a network provider in Philadelphia, which in turn is connected directly to the national network. This connection allows us to do 'live' interaction with computers all over the world.

There are several ways of getting and using information from the Internet:

Electronic Mail

Electronic mail is the Internet equivalent of personal mail sent via the Post Office, and is perhaps the most widely used feature of the Internet. Private messages are sent from one person directly to another; they end up in the recipient's mailbox, where they can be read at leisure.

Example: You can send a message around the world and the recipient can read it at leisure and write back. You could also send a message to someone asking for information about something you've read somewhere on the net. The Internet never closes.

Advantages: E-mail is an easy and efficient way to get a specific answer or share information with one person.

Mailing Lists

A user can also become part of a mailing list of addresses of people interested in a common topic. (Any message sent to a mailing list is sent to all the people on the list, who can receive hundreds of messages in a short time.)

Examples: Anyone can mail to NCTM-L@mathforum.org and the message will be sent to everyone who is subscribed to the NCTM-L mailing list. Mathmagic is a set of mailing lists on which math problems are shared; these problems are then solved over the network with teams from other places.
Advantages: Mailing lists make it easy to share information with a larger but defined group of people.


Often known as Usenet, newsgroups are public bulletin boards on which people can post questions and information. These could be read by literally hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

Newsgroups are available on over 2,600 topics, ranging from cats to k12 education to Icelandic culture.

Example: The Geometry Forum has seven newsgroups that talk about geometry at all levels. One such group is geometry.pre-college, where you will find the geometry Problem of the Week and solutions students have sent in, and where there's been a discussion of the definition of a trapezoid, among many other such conversations.

Advantages: It's normal to receive several answers to your question within hours of posting it, as there's a large pool of readers and a community develops among the regular readers and posters on a group.


Many sites have archives of articles, software, and other information available on their computers. To read or get these files, one can use File Transfer Protocol (FTP) or Gopher, both of which burrow through the net to find what's wanted. With FTP and Gopher, you retrieve information from remote machines without actually being logged onto them.

Example: The Forum's ftp server houses a collection of Internet and mathematics software.

Advantages: There are massive amounts of great information available out there, and people are working hard to make it easier to find.


Another way to access information on another computer is to telnet there and participate in an interactive session. Telnet sites have information, tutorials, searching mechanisms, and generally friendly user interfaces. With telnet you log directly onto another computer.

Examples: U.S. weather forecasts are available from the University of Michigan. Lbraries such as Dartmouth's make texts available, as well as their card catalogs.

Advantages: Access to databases and searching functions allows easy use of remote archives.

World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (WWW or 'the Web') is the first true global hypermedia (e.g., text, pictures, sounds) network. It aims to organize all the information on the Internet to make it accessible and to link to other information so people can easily find what's most important to them. The web uses hypertext documents containing data and links to other documents. The program you use to read a hypertext document is a browser, with which you navigate the Web. When your browser is configured properly you can not only read text but see pictures and diagrams, hear sounds, and view 'movies'.

Example: From the Geometry Forum's home page at http://mathforum.org/ you could find and read the Problem of the Week, see static diagrams sent in by students, and, if you use the Geometer's Sketchpad, view dynamic sketches illustrating ways people have solved it.

Advantages: What makes the Web so powerful is that a link might go to any type of Internet resource: Gopher, FTP, Telnet, Usenet and more are all in one place. Web pages are user-constructible; you can make your own to use as organizational tools, bringing together the Internet resources you access most frequently.


Two users who are logged on can talk with each other by typing. Text appears in two windows, one for each user.

Example: If someone is logged in to a terminal, I can 'call' and ask a question.

Advantages: Cheaper than phone calls, and often an easier way to explain things than by sending e-mail.

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