And 'Lo!': How the Internet was Born

Image copyrightGetty Images In the 1960s, Bob Taylor worked at the heart of the Pentagon in Washington DC. He was on the third floor, near the US defence secretary and the boss of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa). Arpa had been founded early in 1958 but was quickly eclipsed by Nasa, leading Aviation Week magazine to dismiss it as “a dead cat hanging in the fruit closet”. Nevertheless, Arpa muddled on – and in 1966, Taylor and Arpa were about to plant the seed of something big. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world. It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen to all the episodes online or subscribe to the programme podcast. Next to his office was the terminal room, a pokey little space where three remote-access terminals with three different keyboards sat side by side. Each allowed Taylor to issue commands to a far-away mainframe computer. One was based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), more than 700km (450 miles) up the coast. The other two were on the other side of the country – one at the University of California and the Strategic Air Command mainframe in Santa Monica, called the AN/FSQ32XD1A, or Q32 for short. Each of these massive computers required a different login procedure and programming language. It was, as the historians Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon put it, like “having a den cluttered with several television sets, each dedicated to a different channel”. Although Taylor could access these computers remotely through his terminals, they could not easily connect to each other – nor could other Arpa-funded computers across the United States. Image copyrightGardner Campbell/Wikipedia Image captionTaylor studied psychology at university and worked as an aircraft engineer and for Nasa before joining Arpa in 1965 Sharing data, dividing up a complex calculation or even sending a message between these computers was all but impossible. The next step was obvious, Taylor said. “We ought to find a way to connect all these different machines.” Taylor talked to Arpa’s boss, Charles Herzfeld, about his goal. “We already know how to do it,” he said, although it was not clear that anyone really did know how to connect together a nationwide network of mainframe computers. “Great idea,” said Herzfeld. “Get it going. You’ve got $1m more in your budget right now. Go.” The meeting had taken 20 minutes. MIT’s Larry Roberts had already managed to get one of his mainframes to share data with the Q-32 – two supercomputers chatting on the phone. It had been slow, fragile, and fussy to make it work. But Taylor, Roberts and their fellow networking visionaries had something much more ambitious in mind – a network to which any computer could connect. As Roberts put it at the time, “almost every conceivable item of computer hardware and software will be in the network”. Image copyrightGetty Images Image captionLarry Roberts’s hand-drawn 1969 diagram of the potential Arpanet That was an enormous opportunity – it was also a formidable challenge. Computers were rare, expensive, and puny by modern standards. They were typically programmed by hand by the researchers who used them. Who would persuade these privileged few to set aside their projects to write code in the service of someone else’s data sharing project? It was like asking a Ferrari owner to idle the engine in order to heat up a fillet steak, before feeding it to someone else’s dog. The solution was proposed by another computing pioneer, physicist Wesley…

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