Friday, April 10, 2009

Kleinrock: The first word over the Internet, 1969

Los Angeles Magazine featured an article last month by Leonard Kleinrock - best known for leading the group at UCLA that developed the Arpanet - about the past and future of the Internet. There's a lot of kitchen-of-the-future talk about what the Internet will do for us soon and a lot of good trivial history on how the Internet came to be - not the least of which is the fact that the Internet crashed after transmitting two just letters of a word.

On the structure of the first Net, Kleinrock tells us,

UCLA would be the first node. Other nodes would be the Stanford Research Institute, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. Each node would consist of one or more host computers and an Interface Message Processor, or IMP ... [the IMP] was as big as a refrigerator, with a military-hardened gray metal case and a door the full length of it. Inside is was so ugly it was beautiful. Copper, brass, Three rows of lights and rows of toggle switches. A knob with six stops. A headphone like the ones that the early telephone operators used, with an earpiece made of black Bakelite and a little round microphone to speak into at the end of a curved piece of metal.

Sounds like a hell of a modem, worthy of attention from Mark Richards. If only Comcast had to dispatch these to every customer. Kleinrock says he offered it to the Smithsonian, but they couldn't guarantee it would be on display so he kept it, and it'll be on display at the anniversary in October at UCLA.

At 10:30 p.m. on October 29, 1969, Charley Kline, one of my programmers, and I sat down and started to log on from UCLA to SRI ... All we wanted to do was log on. So Charley typed an L. "You get the L?" "Got the L." "Did you get the O?" "Got the O." Typed the G. "Did you get the G?" And crash! The system went down ... There had been a memory overflow at SRI.

I can see why it crashed. They sent at least 24 bits of information over that puppy. That's asking a lot. The end result being that the first word sent over the Internet was "lo" - Kleinrock says, "as in 'Lo and behold.' Truth is, we couldn't have created a better, more concise message. It was prophetic."