History of Computing: ARPANET One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind

We don’t typically associate 1969 as having anything to do with the Internet. It seems like so long ago and for some of us a lifetime away. That was the year Joe Namath guaranteed a victory in Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts. It was a bad sports year in Baltimore when the New York “Miracle” Mets won the World Series over the Baltimore Orioles 4 games to 1. John Wooden and UCLA were in the middle of their streak of 11 straight NCAA championships in men’s basketball and in the NBA the Boston Celtics continued their dynasty defeating the Los Angeles Lakers for the title. In hockey the Montreal Canadiens swept the St. Louis Blues to claim Lord Stanley’s Cup. Australian Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in Tennis and fellow Aussie Margaret Court also nearly did on the women’s side.

In world events Rupert Murdoch purchased the News of the World. Led Zeppelin released their first album. Richard Nixon is inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States and begins negotiations to try to end the Vietnam War. The Beatles gave their last public performance from atop the Apple Recording Studio and later that year take their iconic Abbey Road photograph for their Abbey Road album. Yasser Arafat is elected as the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Boeing 747 makes its maiden flight with the Concorde making its first test flights later in the year. The Harrier jet is introduced to the Royal Air Force. Charles de Gaulle steps down as President of France. The first case of what would be known as HIV/AIDS is reported in St. Louis. Warren Berger replaces Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Humans took one small step for mankind when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. Pete Conrad and Al Bean will become the third and fourth person later in the year. Muammar Gaddafi rises to power in Libya following a coup. Scooby Doo airs for the first time. Dave Thomas opens his first Wendy’s restaurant. The trial of Charles Manson begins for the Tate-LaBianca murders when he is allowed to defend himself.

While many of these events still resonate today there is one event that was not heralded at the time but reigns supremely important with our day to day life. On October 29, 1969 the first message was sent over ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the Department of Defense. It used the new concept of packet-switching, that is placing all data into smaller packets to make transfer easier, to move data from one location to another. Once the data was transferred the link would become available again for use rather than remaining open as with previous methods. This is the basis of what we use today, also known as the TCP/IP protocols. ARPANET was designed by Ivan Sutherland and Bob Taylor and built by BBN Technologies, one of the few contract bidders who took the DoD’s proposal seriously. A series of Interface Message Processors (IMPs) would provide connectivity and would handle packet transmission via a modem. Four computers were connected, one in Utah and three in California and the Internet was born.

The first message was sent by UCLA student Charley Kline on October 29, 1969, sending the word login to the IMP at Stanford. The system crashed and only the i and o were transmitted. An hour later the issue was fixed and the two IMPs were re-connected and the Internet was flowing. Al four IMPs were connected by December. In 1970 the east coast was connected and the number of IMPs continued to grow into the 1970s. ARPANET was to be only used for government business like sending an email, a communication option implemented for ARPANET in 1971. Using it for commercial purposes could risk government fines and censure. File transfers were implemented in 1973 and conference calls were allowed by the Network Voice Protocol in 1977 which were some of the other innovations of the project.

With the advent of more modern technology and supercomputers ARPANET was no longer needed in the 1990s and was decommissioned with new and more powerful systems taking its place. But there always has to be a first, so, the next time you need to send an email, just remember, you have 1969 to thanks for that! There was more going on than Jim Morrison exposing himself after a Doors concert.

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