The Internet at 40: History Began With Its First Crash

On this day in 1969, what would became the Internet was used for the first time--and crashed.

Why do we today celebrate today — October 29 — as the Internet's 40's birthday? Because on this day in 1969, what would later became known as the Internet was used for the very first time — and crashed.

Here is what happened: The first network had four nodes, the first at UCLA, and the second at Stanford Research Institute. The other two — at the University of California-Santa Barbara and the University of Utah were not yet installed.

That network was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a program of the U.S. Department of Defense, created in the aftermath of the Soviets beating the U.S. into space.

On October 29, 1969, a graduate student named Charley Kline used a terminal at UCLA to contact SRI. When Kline typed the "G" in "login" the network crashed. And for some reason, we are today marking that as the "birth of the Internet."

Who says geeks don't have a sense of humor?

Fortunately, the connection was made on a later attempt and if you forget the crash, the proto-Internet was born. You can see the log of the test at the Computer History Museum's Internet timeline.

If the Internet does not seem like it can actually be 40-years-old today, that is because it is not. Sure, there was the proto-Internet, called ARPANET, in those early years. Nevertheless, for many of us, the modern Internet began in 1990 or later.

By then, many of us were experts at using CompuServe, The Source, America Online, and other dial-up services. Some of us had our own computer bulletin board systems, too.

However, the Internet was different. Where the earlier services were destinations, the Internet was, yes, "an information superhighway" that could connect all these services together, eventually bringing hundreds of millions of users and destinations online.

The reason I chose 1990 is because that was the year when you could buy a dial-up Internet connection for the first time and it was also when the first World Wide Web server came online.

It is also the year the first machine to be remotely controlled over the Internet appeared at Dan Lynch's Interop conference. It was the "Internet Toaster," created by the great John Romkey, who was kind enough to share a piece of toast with me. It was an exciting time.

While each development led to others, Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the Web is what made the modern Internet possible. That and e-mail that could move from one service to another, thus becoming capable of connecting everyone.

I am not among those who mark the end of civilization as the moment when "@aol.com" e-mail addresses started to appear, but it might be fair to consider that the beginning of the mass Internet we enjoy today.

That was 1995, I believe, at the same time the old online services began providing Internet access to their users (and Java was introduced).

If you would like to learn more about the history of the Internet, the Computer History Museum is a good place to start. It has many pictures and is written for a non-technical reader.

People who want to know the inside history — the technical history — go to "Hobbes' Internet Timeline v8.2" by Robert H. Zakon.

His site is rich with detail and links (but no pictures). There you will learn why people like Vint Cerf and Bob Metcalfe are so often called "fathers of the Internet." Maybe the Internet would have happened anyway, but they did the work that made things happen and get the credit.

Both are still with us, which is the cool thing about the 40th birthday of something mostly created by college students. Both remain active in the Internet today. I had the honor of working for Dr. Metcalfe during the time he was publisher of Infoworld, one of our sister IDG publications.

There is not a good way to end a post filled with fond memories of a times when the Internet was new. Nevertheless, I will try by closing with Danny Cohen's poem:

"In the Beginning, ARPA created the ARPANET.

And the ARPANET was without form and void.

And darkness was upon the deep.

And the spirit of ARPA moved upon the face of the network and ARPA said, 'Let there be a protocol,' and there was a protocol. And ARPA saw that it was good.

And ARPA said, 'Let there be more protocols,' and it was so. And ARPA saw that it was good.

And ARPA said, 'Let there be more networks,' and it was so."

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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David Coursey

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