On Oct. 4, 1957, broadcasters interrupted their coverage of the World Series to announce that the Soviet Union had successfully launched a satellite into Earth’s orbit. Although it only stayed aloft for a few months, sending signals for 21 days, the message was clear—America was in a two-way race for scientific achievement, and it was in second place. Four months later, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created by order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its goal was to expand the frontiers of science and technology in an environment relatively free from government or military oversight.
In the next dozen years, the U.S. went toe to toe with the Soviet Union in the development of nuclear bombs, missiles, and communications. Many government agencies and research universities had mainframe computers, but there was no reliable way for them to exchange information. The ARPA planners were afraid that a nuclear strike in the Midwest could cut off computer information-sharing between California and New York. A system needed to be designed to enable information to find the quickest path from one location to another, working around sites that were no longer viable.
The system was designed, and in 1968, ARPA sent 140 requests for vendors to construct it. Most of them were ignored, because the idea seemed preposterous. Of the 12 that did respond, the ARPA team narrowed the field down to two and ultimately chose Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc. (BBN). The company installed a team of seven scientists who had the basic system, ARPANET, up and running in months.
Fifty years ago, in October 1969, things were happening that would leave a lasting impression. Charles “Pete” Conrad, Alan L. Bean, and command module pilot Richard F. Gordon were in final preparation for Apollo 12, the second manned mission to the moon, which landed at the Ocean of Storms the following month. The first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC. Long considered to be the worst team in baseball history, the New York Mets shocked the sports world by beating the Baltimore Orioles in five games to win the World Series. President Richard Nixon flew bombers loaded with nuclear weapons to the edge of the Soviet Union’s airspace, virtually daring the country to start World War III. Cooler heads prevailed in Moscow, and the world carried on as before.
On Oct. 29, the ARPA team’s payoff occurred. As I wrote in the book Google This!: Putting Google and Other Social Media Sites to Work for Your Library, “[T]he first message was sent from UCLA to Stanford. They were trying to send the word ‘login,’ but after sending the first two letters, the system crashed. It was restored later in the day, and the entire word was sent.” (Much has been made about the first word transmitted through the internet. German film director Werner Herzog worked that transmission into the title of his film about the internet, Lo and Behold.) The book continues, “By the end of the year, there were four institutional nodes on the network. By the spring of 1970, the network had reached the East Coast. The Internet was born.”
Before ARPANET was in the works, a young man named Theodor Holm “Ted” Nelson dreamed up a new kind of computer system that was nonhierarchical and based on the ways that actual human beings deal with information. He founded Project Xanadu in 1960 while he was making his way through graduate education. The concept was to build a repository of all human knowledge in a way that was intuitive and gave content owners credit when people used their work. He coined the term “hypertext” to describe the functionality of his concept of accessible information.
In 1974, as computer nerds were getting their hands on the first generation of personal computers, Nelson wrote a compilation called Computer Lib: You Can and Must Understand Computers Now/Dream Machines: New Freedoms Through Computer Screens—A Minority Report, which was, arguably, the first book about personal computers. (It was actually two books in one. Readers could switch titles by flipping the book over, rather like the Ace Books paperbacks of the 1950s.) The work is full of useful information and witticisms such as, “The good news about computers is that they do what you tell them to do. The bad news is that they do what you tell them to do.”
I reached out to Nelson, and he wrote back within a few hours and recommended that I tell you about a video he made in 1984 about the dangers of network computer systems. “Let’s see how you fit THAT in,” he wrote. Since Nelson tends to think a decade or two ahead of his time, it is not surprising that his 1984 message was a warning that people who venture into computer networks will be providing information for entities such as the KGB and the CIA, as well as corporations eager to cash in on them. Recently, I was searching for information about hotels in Aruba, and minutes later, Aruba information started showing up in all of my social media feeds. In 2019, we see this as normal, but in 1984, Nelson saw it coming and warned us to be ready for a fight.
GROWING PAINS AND THEIR SOLUTIONS
As the ARPANET system grew, there were new complications. Mainframes that had always worked alone now were communicating with other computers made by different companies in different years and residing in different parts of the world. The ARPANET team members realized they needed a universal language that could be recognized and used by all computers on the network. This was accomplished early in the 1970s by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who developed the Internet Protocol Suite. It is more commonly known as TCP/IP, a marriage of the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol.
In a 2005 C-SPAN interview, Kahn was asked to explain protocols for a nontechnical audience: “A protocol in the context of computer networking is a set of procedures that two machines might use in order to communicate with each other. So for example, we might have a protocol for you and I to communicate, where I will talk for, let’s say, 30 seconds or a minute. And then you might say something back and then I might say something back, and we might view that as a simple form of a protocol.”
One has to be impressed with the durability of this protocol. Designed to smooth communications among a small group of mainframe computers, it is now the backbone of messaging among computers, smartwatches, cellphones, and even refrigerators.
THE LAST PIECE OF THE PUZZLE—FOR NOW
By the 1980s, people began to pay more attention to hypermedia. In 1987, Apple began outfitting its computers with a program called HyperCard. Programs like this were still just seen as a way of manipulating information within a computer, until 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN, worked out a way to marry hypermedia with the internet and created the World Wide Web.
In the 1960s, I was an avid reader of science fiction, and I still remember much of it—enough to realize now that the writers back then failed to predict the biggest story of the century, a communications breakthrough that dwarfed the work of Johannes Gutenberg. ARPANET was formally decommissioned in 1990, having accomplished its mission—and accomplished it better than anyone at the time could have imagined.
Terry Ballard, Google This!: Putting Google and Other Social Media Sites to Work for Your Library
Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web
C-SPAN interview with Robert Kahn
Ted Nelson, an edition of Computer Lib in WorldCat
Ted Nelson’s warning in 1984 about breaches of privacy in computer networks