Fifty Years Ago, the Internet was Born in Room 3420

When I visited UCLA’s Boelter Hall last Wednesday, I took the stairs to the third floor, looking for Room 3420. And then I walked right by it. From the hallway, it’s a pretty unassuming place. But something monumental happened there 50 years ago today. A graduate student named Charley Kline sat at an ITT Teletype terminal and sent the first digital data transmission to Bill Duvall, a scientist who was sitting at another computer at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International) on the other side of California. It was the beginning of ARPANET, the small network of academic computers that was the precursor to the internet. At the time, this brief act of data transfer wasn’t anything like a shot heard round the world. Even Kline and Duvall didn’t appreciate the full significance of what they’d accomplished: “I don’t remember anything specifically memorable about that night, and I certainly didn’t realize that what we had done was anything special at the time,” says Kline. But their communications link was proof of the feasibility of the concepts that eventually enabled the distribution of virtually all the world’s information to anybody with a computer. Today, everything from our smartphones to our garage door openers are nodes on the network that descended from the one Kline and Duvall tested that day. How they and others established the original rules for shuttling bytes around the world is a tale worth sharing—especially when they tell it themselves. “That better never happen again” Even back in 1969, many people had helped set the stage for Kline and Duvall’s breakthrough on the night of October 29–including UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock, whom I spoke with along with Kline and Duvall as the 50th anniversary approached. Kleinrock, who is still at UCLA today, told me that ARPANET was, in a sense, a child of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite blinked across U.S. skies in October 1957, it sent shockwaves through both the scientific community and political establishment. Room 3420, restored to its 1969 glory. [Photo: Mark Sullivan] Sputnik’s launch “caught the United States with its pants down, and Eisenhower said, ‘That better never happen again,’” recounts Kleinrock when I spoke with him in Room 3420, which is now known as the Kleinrock Internet History Center. “So in January ’58, he formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense to support STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in United States universities [and] research labs.” By the mid-1960s, ARPA had provided funding for large computers used by researchers in universities and think tanks around the country. The ARPA official in charge of the financing was Bob Taylor, the key figure in computing history who later ran Xerox’s PARC lab. At ARPA, he had become painfully aware that all those computers spoke different languages and couldn’t talk to each other. Taylor hated the fact that he had to have separate terminals—each with its own leased communication line—to connect with various remote research computers. His office was full of Teletypes. In 1969, Teletype terminals like this one were essential computing devices. [Photo: Mark Sullivan] “I said, oh, man, it’s obvious what to do. If you have these three terminals, there ought to be one terminal that goes anywhere you want to go,” Taylor told the New York Times’s John Markoff in 1999. “That idea is the ARPANET.” Taylor had an even more practical reason to crave a network. He was regularly getting requests from researchers around the country for funds to buy bigger and better mainframe computers. He knew that much of the computing power…

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