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The IETF started in January of 1986 as a quarterly meeting of U.S. government funded researchers. Representatives from non-government vendors were invited, starting with the fourth IETF meeting in October of that year. Since that time all IETF meetings are open to anyone who would like to attend. The initial meetings were very small, with less than 35 people in attendance at each of the first five meetings and with the peak attendance in the first 13 meetings only 120 attendees, at the 12th meeting in January of 1989. The IETF has grown quite a bit since then, with more than 500 attendees at the 23rd meeting in March 1992, more than 750 attendees at the 29th meeting in March 1994, more than 1,000 attendees at the 31st meeting in December 1994, and almost 2,000 attendees at the 37th meeting in December 1996. The rate of growth in attendance has slowed to the point that there were 2,100 attendees at the 43rd meeting in December 1998. Along the way, in 1991, the IETF reduced the number of meetings from four to three per year.
The IETF makes use of a small Secretariat, currently operating out of Reston, VA, and an RFC Editor, currently operated by the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute.
The IETF itself has never been incorporated as a legal entity. It has merely been an activity without legal substance. Up until the end of 1997, the IETF's expenses were covered by a combination of U.S. government grants and meeting fees. Since the beginning of 1998 the expenses have been covered by meeting fees and the Internet Society.
The Internet Society was formed in 1992, partially to provide a legal umbrella over the IETF standards process and to provide some funding for IETF-related activities. The Internet Society, an international membership-based non-profit organization, also evangelizes for the Internet in parts of the world that the Internet has not yet reached. At this time the IETF can be best described as a standards development function operating under the auspices of the Internet Society.
The concept of working groups was introduced at the 5th IETF meeting in February 1987 and there are now over 110 working groups operating within the IETF.