From a Humble Beginning: The Smithsonian’s first Internet Domain

Smithsonian Institution homepage at si.edu, accessed September 11, 2015.

In the spring of 1992 the Smithsonian's "Internet Implementation Committee" was working to connect the Smithsonian to the Internet. Every organization on the Internet needs a domain name, which references a specific range of Internet Protocol (IP) numbers. What domain name should we use? What names were available? What name could we request? Several possible names were researched – we could spell out Smithsonian or we might use an abbreviation such as "SI", or "Smith".  However, any other abbreviation seemed contrived, artificial, and unusable. “Smithsonian” would certainly work, but seemed too long and cumbersome. At that time the domain name choices were limited to the original six historic, or generic top level domains or gTLDs:  ".com", “.edu”, “.gov”, ".mil", ".net", and ".org".

The Smithsonian clearly did not want to join the ".com" domain (Sports Illustrated already had the "si.com" domain name, and still has that name today). The “.net” (usually reserved for organization supporting network operations) and “.mil” (usually reserved for the U.S. military) domains seemed inappropriate; and the “.org” domain was usually reserved for other organizations, also inappropriate. The two most logical, available, and promising name options were presented to the Internet Policy Team: we could apply for either the “si.gov” or “si.edu” domain name.

The sense of the technical team was that it did not really matter which domain name was selected; any name would work exactly the same from a technical point of view. So it was, perhaps, more of a political consideration. The Smithsonian Institution is a trust instrumentality of the United States. Someone at the planning meeting said, "The Smithsonian is technically not part of the government-- can we be “si.edu”?, and that was how “si.edu” was selected.

The Smithsonian applied for and was awarded (on June 19, 1992) the Internet domain name “si.edu”, which became the Smithsonian's first identity on the Internet.

The physical Internet connection was made in July 1992. At that time Internet services were limited to: E-mail (SMTP), file transfer (FTP), and remote login (Telnet). The Smithsonian staff would use these services to access remote computer resources, such as library catalogues, and databases. These services predated the web and the first desktop PC web browser. Little did we know how the rapid growth of the World Wide Web and expanded Internet services would change everything! The official announcement of the Smithsonian’s Internet connection was made by John Moreci, Communications Manager, Office of Information Resource Management, “Smithsonian Connects to Internet”, September 28, 1992.

With the Internet infrastructure established, the Smithsonian website was launched on May 8, 1995, and the rest is history . . .

From that simple beginning with a single domain name, the Smithsonian has, like many large organizations, come to own many domains – nearly 400 as of this writing. Most are not in use and were registered to ensure Smithsonian control over the trademarked Smithsonian name. When the Smithsonian Institution ventured into more commercial endeavors, a “.com” domain -- Smithsonian.com (operated by Smithsonian Enterprises) – did in fact become appropriate. It is in use today, as are a number of other single-purpose domains (e.g., inventionatplay.org). Many of these domains exist for marketing and communications purposes; some are standalone websites, others are simply redirected to “si.edu” subdomain addresses (e.g., emammal.org redirects to emammal.si.edu).

One unanticipated and interesting benefit for the Smithsonian is that search engines like Google evaluate search results from “.edu” domains as originating from an authoritative source and therefor rank the search result higher than those from other domains.

Since the Smithsonian registered “si.edu”, the requirements to register an “.edu” domain have become more strictly focused on accredited educational institutions. According to Educause (the non-profit association responsible for overseeing “.edu”) "only U.S. postsecondary institutions that are institutionally accredited by an agency on the U.S. Department of Education's list of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies" are granted new “.edu” domains.

Previously granted “.edu” domains (such as Smithsonian’s) are grandfathered-in under the newer policies.

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