Elizabeth Feinler, Internet Domains
As the leader of the Network Information Center (NIC), Feinler led the team that devised today’s familiar internet dot-com domains.
It pays to be organized.
As a young information specialist with the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the 1960s, Elizabeth Feinler was arranging an enormous amount of data using 3x5 index cards when she thought, “This work needs a computer.” She teamed up with a programmer to build an early bibliographic system on a time-shared computer.
Feinler’s scheme attracted the attention of Doug Engelbart, who hired her in 1972 to join his SRI-based Augmentation Research Center (ARC), which had been tasked by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to provide a hub system to process messages for the forerunner of today’s internet, ARPANET. They were to give a demonstration of the new network idea at the first International Conference on Computer Communications in Washington, “the first show-and-tell for the Internet,” as Feinler later described it.
“We need a Resource Handbook for the Internet,” Engelbart told her. “What’s a Resource Handbook?”, she asked. “I don’t have a clue!” Engelbart replied, and they both laughed. But SRI needed it in time for the demonstration.
The domain name system (.com, .org, .mil. .edu, and .gov) exists thanks to Feinler and her team, as they organized the first Internet information system.
“That was sort of my introduction to the Augmentation Research Center Group,” recalled Feinler. She immediately set to work organizing hundreds of pages of information into a first ARPANET Resource Handbook, a directory of available computers and resources to be sent around to the 30 or so universities and government agencies with computers that they were trying to get interconnected.
If you wanted to register a domain name, you were told, “Call Jake.”
The following year, the Network Information Center (NIC) became a separate entity funded by the Defense Department. Feinler became its principal investigator (PI). Over time, Feinler managed a group of more than 40 staff, and her funding increased from $100,000 to $11 million – a large program for a woman to be managing at the time. She remained PI for the project until retiring from SRI in 1989.
Feinler’s team morphed hard-copy system directories into online “white page” and “yellow page” servers. They operated a 24/7 computer center, ran a telephone “hotline,” administered network naming and addressing, and provided the first WHOIS name server. In the late 1980s, when the internet converted to today’s familiar dot-based Domain Naming System (DNS), Feinler’s group chose the top-level domains – .com, .org, .mil. .edu, .gov, – and assisted sites with transition to this new system. She later referred to the NIC she and her team built as “the prehistoric Google.”
Known as “Jake” to her friends, Feinler was born March 2, 1931, during the Depression in Wheeling, WV. Money was scarce and all the guardian adults in her life worked, so Feinler grew up independent and able to fend for herself. Her mother taught Jake to enjoy learning how to do things instead of dreading doing them, and she took pride in learning new skills.
When she was 8, Feinler talked the local librarian into an adult library card by getting her mother to insist she could read and understand adult books. Science and murder mysteries were Feinler’s favorites. She also liked movies, and was attracted to strong female actresses like Betty Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman.
As a girl of 8, Elizabeth insisted on an adult library card so she could read adult books, especially science mysteries.
Feinler worked her way through West Liberty State College, WV, where she earned a BS in chemistry in 1954, then completed PhD course work in carbohydrate chemistry at Purdue. In 1956, she left Purdue to earn money to continue her education, became interested in information science, and never returned to carbohydrates.
Feinler joined Chemical Abstracts Service in Columbus, OH, as assistant editor in 1957. Chemical Abstracts was a huge manually-indexed information project, which provided Feinler insights into data organization. While the work was interesting, Feinler wanted to travel and try something different.
In 1960, Feinler read an article describing a program at that teamed an information specialist with a research team. Excited, she called SRI, asked for and received the Menlo Park, CA-based job. Her work there led to the NIC.
After Feinler left SRI in 1989, and then a stint a NASA Ames from 1990-1995, Feinler retired – sort of. She donated and organized 350 boxes of archives for the Computer History Museum, then wrote a detailed finding aid for her contribution, which proved to be an important source of internet history. She was inducted into the Internet Society Hall of Fame (2012) and the Women in Technology Hall of Fame (2018), and earned the 2013 IETF Postel Service Award.
We have all benefitted from this Internet pioneer’s great skills at organizing.