Leonard Kleinrock posing with IMP1. It was the first computer on the ARPANET
It’s 1969. Charles Manson starts a killing rampage, the Mets win the World Series, the average rent is $135.00, a man walks on the Moon, 250,000 demonstrators march on Washington to protest Vietnam, and Woodstock leaves many others stoned for years.
Also, the Internet is born.
It’s hard to appreciate that this mess of pipes that’s turned all of us into nerds and allowed us to look at the menu before we get to the restaurant all began with the military-sanctioned ARPANET. And ARPANET began that year, with a modest hook-up between two nodes, one at UCLA, the other 300 miles away at Stanford University.
The first of those connection points was the Interface Message Processor or, IMP. The giant fridge-sized computer – essentially, the Internet’s first router, or, if you like, traffic cop – was paid for by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (the ARPA of ARPANET), built in Cambridge by the communications engineers at BBN and shipped to UCLA in August of 1969. (Here is the BBN report describing how to set it all up.)
The big box was packed with a a ruggedized Honeywell DDP-516 minicomputer, a power supply, a headset for using the data link as a telephone connection, storage and lots of wires. It came loaded with a whopping 12 kilobytes of memory; the computer I’m using now has 8 gigabytes — or 8,000,000 kilobytes — of the stuff.
Once unboxed, the first step was to hook the IMP up to a smaller host computer in the same room. Its modem – capable of carrying data at a whopping 50 kilobits per second, or eighty times slower than the FCC’s definition of “Basic Broadband” today – was then connected to a leased telephone line that would form the beginning part of the ARPANET network. Another IMP and host would be added at Stanford a few months later; plans were made for a first connection later that year. More on that fateful connection below. But first, some context…
The BB&N engineers behind the first IMP.
By 1977, the network would grow from four computer sites to 111, situated at universities, research facilities and military buildings. With satellite links, ARPANET connected computer systems in the lower 48 states to computers in Hawaii and Europe. At one point, the government tried to sell the whole thing to AT&T, but the company couldn’t figure out how to monetize it and passed. Until DARPA, the successor to ARPA, shut down the network in 1990 — the Internet had by then grown into a sprawling redundant network of connections – few among the public even knew of ARPANET’s existence.
Central to the communication between IMPs and all the other routers that would eventually join it to form the Internet was the brilliant idea of packet switching. Instead of requiring a continuous dedicated connection between two machines, a network that uses packet switching can send data in little packets over multiple routes, and then leave it to the computer on the other end to reassemble the data in the right way. This would give way to TCP/IP, the standard most of the Internet uses to communicate today.
What the first ARPANET node looked like, at UCLA: IMP1 and a host computer.
Here, Leonard Kleinrock, who helped develop packet switching with the computer scientist Paul Baran, shows off the “so ugly it’s beautiful” refrigerator-sized router that he oversaw at UCLA. Amazingly, the thing is still hiding inside a small office next to Kleinrock’s, safe from legions of prostrating nerd pilgrims, luddite terrorists, and spies for foreign governments.
The Smithsonian Museum, which didn’t want it when he offered it in 1989, has changed its mind. The Computer History Museum wants it too. Radiohead is probably itching to turn it into some kind of synth.
But Kleinrock says he would like it to stay at UCLA. It was here, after all, where one computer connected to another computer hundreds of miles away, at 10:30 p.m. on October 29, 1969. The first message?
It wasn’t some primitive computer acronym, or a reference to Nabokov’s pervert icon. It was the start of the word that would become the machine salutation of cyberspace, the key into a then-remote virtual world: “LOGIN.”
But it didn’t quite work. The computer at Stanford crashed. A few minutes later a bug was fixed, and the login attempt worked and the rest was history. But on that first connection, its bits blazing at 50kb per second, the machine up at Stanford only received the letters L and O. The letter ‘G’ was apparently too much to handle. The first Internet connection was a dud. An epoch’s worth of data – DARPA estimates 100 billion billon bits were created in 2010 alone – would begin with just a half word.