'Lo' And Behold: A Communication Revolution The Internet began with a whimper, not a bang. And not everyone agrees on when that whimper occurred. But 40 years ago Thursday, the first communication over a computer network called ARPANET was sent — a message that said simply "lo."
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'Lo' And Behold: A Communication Revolution

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'Lo' And Behold: A Communication Revolution

'Lo' And Behold: A Communication Revolution

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in California.


And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

On this date 40 years ago, something called the ARPANET came into existence and since then communication hasn't been the same.

NPR's Guy Raz, host of the WEEKEND EDITION of this program, talked with some of the people behind its creation.

GUY RAZ: Charley Kline's lonely moment in history unfolded inside a large, empty computer lab at UCLA at 10:30 at night on October 29th, 1969.

Dr. CHARLES KLINE (Computer Scientist): And I was 21 and a programmer. I liked to program at all hours of the day and night.

RAZ: Nights spent with the SDS Sigma 7. It was a computer about the size of a one-bedroom apartment. And that one night, October 29th, Charley Kline sent an electronic message from the Sigma 7 to another computer at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. And that transmission would literally transform the way we communicate today. But to tell the story of how it happened, we have to start with the context in which it happened.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Century 21. Century 21.

RAZ: A communication revolution was happening, except that it was happening over the telephone.

Unidentified Man #2: This is the automatic dialer. Just listen for dial tone, insert a number card and press the start bar. The Bell system automatic dialer dials for you more quickly and easily than you can do it yourself.

RAZ: Telephones were for communicating and computers were built to process information, to do things like payroll and crunch numbers.

(Soundbite of computer)

RAZ: You're hearing the IBM 1401. It was a computer system about the size of a two-car garage.

On a recent afternoon at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, a few old-timers got it up and running to demonstrate what it could do. And what it could do was process about as much information as your cell phone - your old ratty cell phone from the 1980s. In fact, if you took all the computers in the museum's main exhibit hall — and we're talking about a space the size of four football fields...

Mr. BILL DUVALL (Computer Scientist, Stanford Research Institute): It's fair to say that your BlackBerry has more computing power than all of the computers in this room combined.

RAZ: That's Bill Duvall. He was at the Stanford Research Institute on the receiving end of Charley Kline's message the night of October 29th, 1969.

Now, nearly four years before Bill and Charley did the Internet equivalent of the moon landing, a man name Bob Taylor was sitting in his office at the Pentagon, where he worked for the department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, and he was frustrated. Taylor had three computer terminals in his office and each one connected to a different computer in a different part of the country.

Mr. BOB TAYLOR (Advanced Research Projects Agency): To get in touch with someone in Santa Monica through the computer, I would sit in front of one terminal. But to do the same thing with someone in Massachusetts, I would have to get up and move over to another terminal. You don't have to look at this very long to realize this is silly. This is stupid. So I decided, okay, I want to build a network that connects all of these.

RAZ: And so Taylor started to collect really smart people - people who could build that network, people like Bill Duvall at SRI in Menlo Park, Professor Len Kleinrock at UCLA and the young Charley Kline. Taylor also sent word to the biggest technology companies that they could bid on a contract to help build that network.

Charley Kline remembers what happened next.

Dr. KLINE: IBM refused to bid, as did AT&T. They both said, can't be done. It's useless. They saw the future of computing as bigger and bigger mainframes.

RAZ: So, a smaller company, Bolt, Beranek and Newman, got the contract. And it built a device called the IMP, the interface message processor. It was as big as two full-size gym lockers.

Charley Kline explains how it worked.

Dr. KLINE: So I would type a character. It would go into my computer. My software would take it, wrap around it all the necessary software to send it to the IMP. The IMP would take it and say, oh, this is supposed to go up to SRI.

RAZ: Think about it like your home Internet router, only 100 times bigger. Anyway, it took about a year for BB&N to build several of these IMPs and then get them into place at different locations in the country, including at UCLA and SRI.

Dr. KLINE: At some point we were ready to test it. It wasn't like we had planned, you know, on October 29. You know, it got to a point where I'm ready to test. Are you ready to test? And we decided to do that.

RAZ: And so, late on the 29th of October, 1969, Charley Kline, sitting at the UCLA computer lab, placed a phone call to Bill Duvall at Stanford.

Mr. DUVALL: We didn't walk into a darkened room, turn on the lights, flip the switch and have it work. You know, this was something that we tried, you know, some number of times, sort of, we were hooked up with a telephone headset and we were talking to each other.

RAZ: Charley Kline started to type the historic message — an online communication roughly equivalent to what the Neanderthal is to the modern man.

This is how Len Kleinrock, the man who headed UCLA's computer lab, recalls the event.

Professor LEONARD KLEINROCK (Computer Science Department, University of California, Los Angeles): We should've prepared a wonderful message. Certainly Samuel Morse did when he prepared: What hath God wrought, a beautiful Biblical quotation. Or Alexander Graham Bell: Come here, Watson. I need you. Armstrong up in the moon: A giant leap for mankind. These guys were smart. They understood public relations. They had quotes ready for history, and we still remember those quotes.

All we wanted to do on October 29th was to send a simple login capability from UCLA to SRI. We just wanted to log into the SRI machine from UCLA.

RAZ: And so, the first computer network communication was — well, it was supposed to be the word login, L-O-G-I-N.

Mr. DUVALL: So the first thing I type was an L.

RAZ: over the phone, Bill Duvall told Charley Kline, I got the L.

Mr. DUVALL: I typed in O, and he got the O.

RAZ: And then Kline typed the G.

Dr. KLINE: And he had a bug and it crashed.

Mr. DUVALL: It crashed.

RAZ: And that was it. The first ever computer network communication was L-O. The ARPANET was born. About an hour later, at 10:30, they got it to work. They successfully transmitted the word L-O-G-I-N. Charley Kline scribbled some notes into a logbook and went home to bed. Bill Duvall also called it a night. On the way home, he stopped for a quick burger and a beer. Was that how you celebrated, I asked? No, he said. I was hungry.

SIEGEL: That's our colleague Guy Raz who hosts this program on the weekend. That's when you can hear more stories in our series The Net at 40.

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