October 31 the internet##s 40th birthday. Well, not exactly the internet but Arpanet – the Pentagon-funded research project that is the predecessor to the internet. Forty years ago, a simple message “Lo” (it was supposed to be “Login”, but the system crashed) was sent between two computers at two Californian research labs and a net was born. What happened next – the development of the now global internet, the web that you are reading this on – has had an impact on all of us. Last week, the Guardian published an interactive people##s history of the internet telling the story of how that happened and interviewing some of the people who made it so.
Charley Kline and Bill Duvall – who made that first connection between the University of California and the Stanford Research Institute – are in there, as are pioneers of politics, social interaction and gaming online.
Kline admits the importance was not recognised at the time. “It was neat that it was working … but nobody recognised that it was the beginning of something,” he says – but what would develop from that first connection has had a huge influence on how we live today.
It is also worth remembering the perhaps unexpected nature of those who made this military-funded network. Oliver Burkeman spoke to Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA professor who led the project, for a complementary piece on how the internet changed the world for ever, noting that the Arpanet##s development into what we have today was never inevitable.
It was a crucial idiosyncrasy of the Arpanet that its funding came from the American defence establishment – but that the millions ended up on university campuses, with researchers who embraced an anti-establishment ethic, and who in many cases were committedly leftwing; one computer scientist took great pleasure in wearing an anti-Vietnam badge to a briefing at the Pentagon. Instead of smothering their research in the utmost secrecy – as you might expect of a cold war project aimed at winning a technological battle against Moscow – they made public every step of their thinking, in documents known as Requests For Comments.
That thinking followed through and the internet – open both for people and machines thanks to the run-anywhere systems at its heart – would eventually win out over attempts in the 1980s to create more tightly controlled networks. It is also a spirit that informed Tim Berners-Lee##s later World Wide Web (not the same as the internet) when the Cern European particle physics laboratory released it royalty-free for anyone to use.
Lots more contributed to the internet we have today – bulletin boards, Usenet, dial-up modems, innovators and hobbyists outside the research labs – but Arpanet was the foundation stone and is worth remembering.