That's right, most thoughtful observers agree that on Tuesday, October 29, the internet will celebrate its 50th birthday.
I suspect that most of you didn't ramp onto the information superhighway until the early or mid-90s. I might have beat you there by a few years since I'd been focused on technologies in college and as a computer salesperson.
However, all of us together more or less missed out on the first half of its life. So, let me share a little bit about how this behemoth of social, economic and political influence came in the world, over which its wide web has been woven.
The U.S. Department of Defense once had within its organization the Information Processing Techniques Office. The IPTO began in earnest in the early 1960s under DoD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA already had some successful pilot programs surrounding new concepts and strategies on information sharing in the Air Force, such as having built a network, of sorts, to communicate cross-country radar defenses. The architecture for the future computer communications systems that we're celebrating would come from the IPTO's partnerships with Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and a handful of other intellectually weighted institutions. The importance of the anticipated capabilities, particularly as to national defense effectiveness, were obvious when you consider their unheard of cash support and the utter spending discretion afforded to the researchers.
After a few years of this relatively immensely budgeted program, and changes in the head chefs of IPTO's experimental kitchen, the proverbial lightbulb went off. By 1966 it had developed to a point where three of the aforementioned research institutions were connected to the IPTO's office over individual, respective networks.
"But," thought then IPTO director Robert Taylor, "what if I could connect to all three with one, shared network?" Without scaling according to that notion Taylor would need a line for every strategic location, up to crossing the globe, with nearly countless computer terminals back in Washington, and staff for each one. The Pentagon, like a city unto itself that it is, couldn't handle the logistics, and security would shrink with every added terminal.
Later that year, in support of Taylor's vision, DARPA offered more funding. One million dollars would be awarded IPTO toward creating an organized, capable network as Taylor envisioned. Research, as I can attest, is neither cheap nor speedy. The MIT's Lawrence Roberts, one of many research scholars working for IPTO, in June of 1968 submitted his work, "Resource Sharing Computer Networks," a paper setting forth plans to build ARPANET, still focused on governmental and defense functions. The IPTO, under Taylor's leadership, approved of the plan on June 21, and ARPANET was on its way to reality.
Many in my profession, and if you're a techie or talk with them about the internet's origins, you too may have said or heard that the internet came from ARPANET. That's true. What ARPANET quickly became, additionally, was far more dynamic than its beginnings as a defense tool. Once those observant scholars began seeing and learning about what exactly they were developing they knew full well that its application far outstretched radar communications. They saw, at its base, that any communications could be sent along the network.
At its inception ARPANET consisted of two main nodes, which in computing has the same basic definition as it does in botany: a point along a path that intersects with another path. One ARPANET node was at UC Berkeley and the other at Stanford, though technically that was at SRI International, a not-for-profit in Menlo Park that Stanford's trustees established. In addition to the two nodes there were two other sites on the network, one at UC Santa Barbara and another at the University of Utah.
On October 29, 1969, UC Berkeley established a phone connection with Stanford and powered up the two nodes' computer systems. Fifty years later, when we crank up our laptops (assuming we're security conscious, which we are, yes?) we see the login screen and it was the same then.
"Do you see the 'L'?" asked Berkeley of Stanford.
"Yes, we see the 'L'." answered Stanford.
"We typed the 'O,' do you see that?"
Again, and presumably as ecstatic as research scholars ever get, Stanford answered affirmatively. When Berkeley then typed the "G" … the system crashed. Information overload of such scant nature as to never happen again. In fact, very little would ever happen again the same. The internet's progenitor had been created.
Surely, you know that wasn't the first time communications spanned the vastness of California. Communications had crossed the Atlantic since 1858 when, not totally dissimilar from IPTO's evolution, the American "Niagara" and the British "Agamemnon," two ships from their respective piers across the pond, met midway carrying half each of the Atlantic Cable. And, just like the first ARPANET conversation never really happened as planned the Atlantic Cable bricked within days, and a new connection was made in 1866 that lasted the next 100 years.
Our 1969 heroes most likely never envisioned what we now take for granted as the internet. They didn't foresee the global economy's reliance on it. No cyberbullying. The Arab Spring, or any other goodness or ugliness of social media. Election meddling. The "tech bubble" into the recession of 2008. None of these, or millions of other factors were in their mindsets. The year, despite that unknowing future borne of it, was phenomenal. We had the internet's birth, the moon landing (July 20), Woodstock (August 15-18), Wal-Mart incorporated (October 31), and if you're more locally attuned, the first Long John Silver's popped up in Lexington (August 18).
None of those, or most any other newsworthy event from 50 years ago, mystically began on one given date. Yet, we can solidly say (or Tweet, TikTok, Snap, Insta, etc.) Happy Birthday Internet! today.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.