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40 Years Later, Looking Back At The Internet's Birth

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of dial-up modem connecting)

RAZ: Ah, the sound of an Internet modem. Sounds quaint now, doesn't it? And yet, that was how most people got online just a few short years ago. Today for most of us, connecting to the Internet sounds like this.

(Soundbite of silence)

RAZ: Silence. But in the beginning, getting online required machines that sounded more like Industrial Age production lines.

(Soundbite of computer)

RAZ: That's the IBM 1401, a mammoth beast of a computer, which we'll hear about in a moment, but back to the reason why we're starting our show today with these sounds.

It so happens that this past week marked the 40th anniversary of a milestone event in the development of what we've come to know as the Internet. Over the next few weeks and months, we'll meet some of the people who helped build the Internet.

Today, we continue our series, The Net at 40, with a look back at the years leading up to that moment of creation, that spark that set of a communications revolution.

Mr. BOB TAYLOR: Okay.

RAZ: Now, if you want to know how the Internet really began, you have to start in Bob Taylor's tomato garden.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, Early Girls are supposed to be early. This year, they were late. These are Early Girls.

RAZ: Bob Taylor lives, appropriately, at the top of a hill in Northern California overlooking the Silicon Valley, like a creator looking down at his creation.

Many historians of the valley would say Bob Taylor is one of the men partly responsible for the tech industry that developed here, and yet, technology isn't something Taylor spends too much time on these days. In some ways, he's more interested in tomatoes.

Mr. TAYLOR: I grow slightly different varieties each year, well, except for a few standards.

RAZ: And do you can them or preserve them?

Mr. TAYLOR: No, no, I just eat them raw.

RAZ: And that's how he served them to us when we stepped into his house, a drizzle of olive oil, some salt and pepper. Once a year, when the tomato yield becomes unmanageable, Taylor invites all his old friends up to the house for a tomato feast, the old friends who worked under Bob Taylor at the Xerox Park Computer Lab in Palo Alto.

That team would go on to develop things like the Ethernet, the laser printer, and software that's the basis for the Apple and Windows operating systems. But before all that happened, Taylor worked at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, and that's where, back in 1968, Taylor and his mentor, another computer visionary named J.C.R. Licklider, wrote a paper that imagined an interconnected computer network.

Here's Taylor reading an excerpt from it.

Mr. TAYLOR: (Reading) Available within the network will be functions and services to which you subscribe on a regular basis and others that you call for when you need them. In the former group will be investment guidance, tax counseling, selected dissemination of information in your field of specialization, announcement of cultural, sport and entertainment events that fit your interests, et cetera. In the latter group will be dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, catalogues, editing programs, teaching programs, testing programs, programming systems, databases and, most important, communication, display and modeling programs.

RAZ: That all came true.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yep, that's right. It took a while.

RAZ: It's a pretty amazing prediction.

Mr. TAYLOR: No, I don't think so.

RAZ: Bob Taylor's not much interested in getting recognition. In fact, in 1999, when President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology, he didn't even bother to fly to Washington to accept it.

Now, unlike a lot of the men who helped build what would become the Internet, Bob Taylor is not a computer scientist. He doesn't even have a Ph.D. His background was in psychology. And what really inspired Taylor was the idea of expanding human interaction, interaction using computer technology. But to understand how revolutionary Taylor and Licklider's ideas really were, it's helpful to understand the context in which they were formed.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: If you went to any of the World's Fairs in the 1960s, you'd learn about a communication revolution, except the revolution was happening over the telephone.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: 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: Once again, you're hearing the IBM 1401, 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. It was in loud, rumbling rooms like this one where Bob Taylor's vision came to life, a vision born out of frustration.

Taylor had three computer terminals in his office at the Pentagon, and each one connected to a different computer in a different part of the country.

Mr. TAYLOR: 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. I mean, you don't have to look at this very long to realize this is silly. It is stupid. So I decided, okay, I want to build a network that connects all of these.

RAZ: Taylor had a budget of $18 million, about the equivalent of $110 million today. So he started to collect really smart people who could help build that network, people like Doug Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park; and Professor Len Kleinrock at UCLA.

But the physical act of turning on the network was left to two young computer programmers: Charlie Kline at UCLA and Bill Duvall at the Stanford Research Institute.

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

Mr. CHARLIE KLINE: 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. In that one night, October 29th, Charlie Kline sent an electronic message from the Sigma 7 to Bill Duvall at SRI in Menlo Park. They did it using a machine that none of the big technology companies wanted to build. ARPA had asked for bids on a contract to help build the network. Charlie Kline remembers what happened next.

Mr. 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 computer, 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-sized gym lockers. Charlie Kline explains how it worked.

Mr. KLINE: So I would a type a character, 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 a hundred times bigger and with its own cooling system. Anyway, it took about a year for BB&N to build several of these IMPs and get them into place at different locations around the country, including at UCLA and SRI.

Mr. KLINE: At some point, we were ready to test it. It wasn't like we had planned or, you know, on October 29. You know, it got 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, Charlie 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 a switch and have it work. You know, this was something that we tried, you know, some number of times. We were hooked up with a telephone headset and we were talking to each other.

RAZ: Charlie Kline started to type the historic message, an online communication roughly equivalent to what the Neanderthal is to modern man. This is how Len Kleinrock, the man who headed UCLA's computer lab, recalls the event.

Professor LEONARD KLEINROCK (Computer Science, University of California, Los Angeles): We should have prepared a wonderful message. Certainly, Samuel Morse did when he prepared "what had God wrought," beautiful, biblical quotation. Or Alexander Graham Bell, come here, Watson, I need you. Or Armstrong up on 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. KLINE: So the first thing I typed was an L.

RAZ: Over the phone, Bill Duvall told Charlie Kline: I got the L.

Mr. KLINE: I typed an O, and he got the O.

RAZ: And then Kline typed the G.

Mr. KLINE: And he had a bug, and it crashed.

RAZ: It crashed.

And that was it. The first-ever computer network communication was LO. The ARPANET was born. About an hour later, they actually did get it to work. They successfully transmitted the word L-O-G-I-N. Charlie Kline then 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.

The men behind that night and the years that followed include names like J.C.R. Licklider, Len Kleinrock, Larry Roberts, Vent Cerf, Doug Engelbart and, of course, Bob Taylor.

When people say Bob Taylor, father of the Internet.

Mr. TAYLOR: No.

RAZ: You don't feel comfortable with that?

Mr. TAYLOR: No, no, the Internet has hundreds, at least hundreds, maybe thousands of fathers. There are four people, former colleagues of mine, each of whom claims to be the father of the Internet, and I just, I laugh at that. I mean, it's ridiculous.

RAZ: In a hundred years, if people are talking about you, what do you want them to say about you?

Mr. TAYLOR: I don't think anyone will talk about me in a hundred years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TAYLOR: I don't think anyone will talk about me next year.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Our series, The Net at 40, is produced by Matt Martinez. Our stories will continue throughout the next weeks and months. We want to hear how the Internet has affected your life. Contact us at npr.org, and put The Net at 40 in the subject line.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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