[iDC] history of protocols

Jennifer Cool cool at usc.edu
Mon Oct 28 02:12:01 UTC 2013

Dear Claus,
I do not know the specific history of the term "protocol" in computing. It
is an interesting question. Does the OED give a first date for that usage?

I know the term was in use in telephony before the digital age. There is
something called "ground start protocol" which was a way to request a dial
tone. (If I remember correctly, that was an electrical protocol, not
digital.) There is now something called "digital ground start protocol."

If telecommunications people were using the term in the pre-digital days, I
suspect they probably got it from telegraph operators who had a standard
communication format they would use when sending telegraph messages. There
had to be a little back-and-forth before a message could be send and I
vaguely remember hearing that called a "protocol."

As a diplomatic protocol governs how two diplomats or nations initiate and
carry out dialog, someone must have thought to apply that to
technologically mediated communication. I'm afraid I don't have any
specific data, but I strongly suspect that the term was brought to
computing from telephony and is likely to have been a carry over from

Jenny Cool

On Sat, Jun 29, 2013 at 3:12 AM, Claus Pias <claus.pias at univie.ac.at> wrote:

> Dear all,
> I am curious if anyone did some historical research on WHY protocols were
> called "protocols". From the existing literature and old RFC's I vaguely
> know WHEN transmission protocols emerged and how the structure of packages
> was defined in the times of early online-systems. There are also a few
> texts on the history of protocol engineering (i.e. Computer Networks
> 54(2010) 3197-3209). But as far as I see, no one yet asked the questions
> why the term "protocol" was chosen.
> The background is that I am working on medieval and early modern documents
> (deeds) whose structure is called "protocol" in diplomatics (in the sense
> of Mabillon). In fact, the structure of digital data packages very much
> resembles the structure of deeds, that follow a highly formalized framework
> of invocatio, intitulatio, inscriptio, narratio, sanctio, corroboratio,
> eschatocoll  (to use the latin rhetorical terms) that are equivalent to
> time stamp, sender, receiver, message, 'checksum' or authentifier etc. etc.
> Questions of security of transmission were crucial for that kind of
> structure.
> Was anyone aware of this historical notion of "protocol" when the term was
> introduced to computer networks in the 1960's?
> My apologies for such an esoteric question -- it's my first post here.
> Best wishes,
> Claus
> --
> Claus Pias
> Leuphana University Lüneburg, Wallstr. 1, 21335 Lüneburg / Germany
> Professor for History and Epistemology of Media (ICAM)
> Director, Institute for Advanced Study in Media-Cultures of Computer
> Simulation (MECS)
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Jennifer Cool, Ph.D.
Center for Visual Anthropology
University of Southern California
Co-Chair, CASTAC, http://blog.castac.org
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