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I just realized that the directions in "UPload" and "DOWNload" seem arbitrary to me as a non-native English speaker. I took a look at a couple of dictionaries and they said that this word is a result of merging "down" and "load", which doesn't seem to explain anything. Where could those two directions come from?

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    Originally I suppose a server was considered a higher order of device so you would load UP to it. Of course these days the reference is to The Cloud which surely lies upward from your mere device.
    – Jim Mack
    Jan 29, 2017 at 12:46
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    The prefix up- is used metaphorically to describe 'to a more important / main / central ... position', ie away from a peripheral / terminal [device etc]. Jan 29, 2017 at 12:48
  • In a telecommunications network or computer network, 'downstream' refers to data sent from a network service provider to a customer.
    – ARi
    Jan 29, 2017 at 12:52
  • The metaphor is hardly new; we have upper and lower classes, up- and down-market, the up-train to eg London.... Jan 29, 2017 at 13:02
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    That's an artifact of the metaphor. UP/DOWN is a really basic metaphor constituent, with lots of themes to choose from. Jan 29, 2017 at 17:47

4 Answers 4

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Initially, "download" and "upload" were used in aviation, especially by the US military. "Download" meant to remove items such as weapons from the aircraft, while "upload" meant to load items onto the aircraft.

For example, the August 1963 Aerospace Maintenance Safety (a publication of the US Air Force) says at page 18:

Failure to follow written procedures and download the missiles...

(meaning failure to remove the missiles from the aircraft)

There are earlier examples of "download", "downloading" and "uploading" in the January 1961 Aerospace Accident and Maintenance Review, also a USAF publication.

And still earlier in the October 1959 Aircraft Accident and Maintenance Review, USAF, at page 27:

During downloading of armament for a routine check, it was discovered that all the missiles aboard the F-102 had their internal power source activated.

(There was also an even earlier meaning relating to the direction of load on an aircraft component, such as on the tail of the aircraft. See "download on tail" in the April 1957 NACA Technical Note 3961 and ""download applied to the horizontal tail surface" in the 1952 US Code of Federal Regulations ).

Then, within the US Air Force, the concept was extended to computers.

The July 1968 IMPLEMENTATION OF THE USAF STANDARD BASE SUPPLY SYSTEM: A QUANTITATIVE STUDY says:

ADC provided a three-man team, which visited the bases some 30 days prior to conversion and conducted a full-scale download of the 305 and upload of the 1050, requiring 10 to 15 days.

...

  1. Download records from the previous computer
  2. Upload records on the 1050 computer
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  • Neat. You might like to acknowledge me for giving you the Google Books link you got this data from. (It's pretty tedious manually searching for instances of the term through the search hits, trying to find it in the source book (very unreliable), then disambiguate the context it was used in (aircraft/telecomms/other)). Any idea what the earliest telecomms citation was?
    – smci
    Nov 12, 2019 at 19:57
  • @smci Actually, 1st I answered on superuserSE superuser.com/questions/1500554/…, 2nd answered here, 3rd saw your comment, but still haven't looked at your link.
    – DavePhD
    Nov 12, 2019 at 20:09
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    @smci a 25 July 1977 ad in Computer World for the B500 terminal says it has "upload and download capability" and 19,200 bps transmission rate. books.google.com/… Would you consider that telecom?
    – DavePhD
    Nov 13, 2019 at 2:11
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    @smci and hyphenated "down-load" is in a 14 June 1976 article about the same terminal books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Nov 13, 2019 at 2:16
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OED noticed the word for the first time in 1976, it seems.

1976 was very early in the development of computers. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) was designed 1971 and TCP/ IP followed in 1973. These two protocols made any transfer of data possible for the first time.

Servers or internet wasn't something anyone could imagine yet. Instead scientist were still hammering out the basic how of a data transfer.

In these years, several conceptual models for the transfer of data were developed. Most used and known nowadays is the OSI model with 7 layers - and these layers have an up / down direction.

Now, if I want to get data from another computer, I technically send the other computer a request, which then converts said data "down" to the physical layer, until all is left is a physical signal. This signal is then send to my computer, and I convert it again (this time "upwards").

This also is a likely explanation why "upload" appeared years later, in 1980 according to OED. Upload was coined as the simple opposite of download.

Though, while this is what I first thought of, it might be that there is also a hierarchy meaning in play as well.

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    This seems unlikely to me. In the first place, in the OSI model, the communicators exchange logical messages at the same level. For FTP, this is the application layer. It's true that application layer messages are converted "down" the hierarchy to lower-level protocols by the sender and these messages are assembled "up" the hierarchy to higher-level protocols by the receiver. But both server and client send and receive messages, so both traverse the protocol hierarchy in the two directions.
    – deadrat
    Jan 29, 2017 at 21:17
  • Google NGrams shows the words were around decades earlier. 'download'/'upload' were used even back in the 1940s, before satellites. OED is typically a lagging indicator (often lags by several decades), it only shows when a term became accepted mainstream, not when it was coined.
    – smci
    Nov 11, 2019 at 23:02
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    @smci the pre-1960s examples are in relation to aircraft tail loads.
    – DavePhD
    Nov 12, 2019 at 19:05
  • @DavePhD: Thanks. I tried to check a few. What was the earliest date of citation you found in a telecomms context? 1960s?
    – smci
    Nov 12, 2019 at 19:28
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    @smci I found July 1968 in relation to computers (see my answer).
    – DavePhD
    Nov 12, 2019 at 19:35
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Looking at the OED first use, "1976 Science 7 May 518/1 Software at any level can be developed on a host minicomputer and ‘down-loaded’ without code conversion", it appears to be talking about loading code from a host to a microprocessor. No real help there but I wonder if the author was thinking of taking reference books down in a library to copy out texts and then putting them back up on the shelves?

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    Certainly the terms have been in use since the early 70s, if not earlier. Pretty much since interconnected computers first appeared.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 29, 2017 at 13:30
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    UP is big, DOWN is small. Moving from the bigger to the smaller computer is downloading, and vice-versa. Jan 29, 2017 at 17:45
  • @JohnLawler: again that's pure speculation, and there's too much of that on this already. Hard citations please.
    – smci
    Nov 12, 2019 at 20:29
  • It does - download in the computer sense describes data moving from a network [host computer] to a local machine...
    – NeilB
    Nov 12, 2019 at 21:06
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Download and Upload are far from arbitrary, they are entirely rational:

A Download refers to data that is brought 'down' from a network, the World Wide Web (Or Cloud) to reside on a local drive / computer.

Upload is data that is sent 'up' to the World Wide Web (Or Cloud) from a local drive of computer.

The term originated as others have described from the pre-personal computer era, and is a Networking term.

In the good o'l days [1970's],all computing power was housed exclusively in remote Server or mainframe computers - it was too expensive for an individual to buy.

Other than a local terminal directly wired to the 'glowing mass' of the mainframe, any other connections were "Down the wire", outside of a large company with a LAN, typically this would be the public telephone system. I remember visiting my Secondary School during the summer holidays in 1977 to play "Lunar Lander" via the dial-up telephone-cradle modem link to the local council mainframe computer.

1970's Cradle modem

As an aside: The game required the player to type in a numerical value, which was sent 'up' the telephone line to the mainframe, which would respond to the teleprinter with a message like:

"You are at 3,000' and descending at 50m/sec."

The player would type another value and so on until you received the message:

"Congratulations, you have crashed!"

Tv monitors and video displays were but a distant dream...

All local drives were "down the wire".

Any keyboard inputs were sent "up the wire"...

See also: Downstream

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  • The local drive need not be literally 'down' from the server, so down- in download is a metaphor. What the OP wants to know how these metaphorical senses of down- and up- are related to their literal senses.
    – jsw29
    Nov 13, 2019 at 6:45
  • Pre-1970's no one owned a personal computer, the only computing power was centrally owned by either government, Universities or big business. The only way you could access these centralised machines was "Down a wire". If you sent data back to the mainframe it was sent back "UP" the wire. Download is not a metaphor, unless you were born after 1978, it is a Networking term used to indicate the direction of data travel along a piece of copper.
    – NeilB
    Nov 13, 2019 at 19:14
  • @NeilB what you're saying is true for "downstream" and "upstream", but "download" and "upload" originated differently.
    – DavePhD
    Nov 13, 2019 at 20:08
  • If one is sending the data to a mainframe that is located in the basement, from a terminal on the second floor, then the data are travelling down the wire in the literal sense of down; if one says, as is customary, that they are going up, one is not using the word up in the literal sense.
    – jsw29
    Nov 14, 2019 at 6:46
  • I played the same Lunar Lander game in the same era, and I'm pretty sure the TTY printed CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE CRASHED! and all other messages in all caps because that's all it had. :)
    – shoover
    Nov 15, 2019 at 16:57

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