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The Creation of ARPANET and the Birth of the Internet

'50 Years In LA' looks beyond the team and at the city they call home

by Emily Hummel @hummeline /

In 1969, about 12 miles away from the Fabulous Forum, something new was being born. We tend to think of the internet as a modern creation, that came of age with us in the Oregon Trail Generation, where we had rooms for computers, and remember fondly the sound of dial-up modems. So it's surprising to realize that the roots of the internet go a bit further back. 

There are, if you look, about a thousand starting places for the internet. There's the birth of TCP/IP, the creation of Ethernet, the WorldWideWeb, and more, but we're looking at the creation of ARPANET, which happened in our very backyard. That is to say: UCLA.

ARPANET was the first time a networked computer spoke to another networked computer, which laid the groundwork for the connectiveness that we almost take for granted today. Computers, of course, already existed. They took up the size of rooms, and required large cooling systems, but they existed across the country. 


Interface Message Processor Front Panel by Andrew Adams (CC BY-SA)


ARPANET was created when machines called IMPs, or Interface Message Processors (what we think of as a modern-day router), each about the size of two gym lockers, were connected to computers at four sites across the West: one at the University of Utah, one at Stanford University, one at UCSB, and, finally, one at UCLA.


Arpa Network four node map, image courtesy of the Computer History Museum. You can see the UCLA hub at the bottom of the chart, linked to its Sigma 7 computer.


So here's how it began. At 10:30 p.m. on October 29, 1969, Charlie Kline was working in the lab at UCLA, and Bill Duvall was at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, Ca. Both of their computers were hooked up to their respective IMPs, which were connected by a 50 kbps AT&T phone line-the equivalent of modern-day dialup, but at the time it was the top of the line! 

Charlie Kline began the test by sending out the first letter: L, and Stanford confirmed they received it. Next, he sent out an O, and again, it was confirmed. He typed G, and the Stanford computer promptly crashed. Thus the first message sent over the ARPANET-and thus, the internet-was half a word: "L-O." 

About an hour later, they managed to send the first full message, a simple: "L-O-G-I-N." Charlie promptly logged the conversation (see below, "talked to SRI, Host to Host") and closed everything up, and went home for the night, while Bill Duvall reportedly went home to eat a cheeseburger.


The IMP Log: The Very First Message Sent on the Internet by Andrew Adams (CC BY-SA)


Professor Leonard Kleinrock, who was supervising the UCLA team at the time, discussed the simplicity of the message with NPR, saying: 

"We should have prepared a wonderful message. Certainly, Samuel Morse did when he prepared "what had God wrought," beautiful, biblical quotation. Or Alexander Graham Bell, come here, Watson, I need you. Or Armstrong up on the moon, a giant leap for mankind. These guys were smart. They understood public relations. They had quotes ready for history, and we still remember those quotes."

It's true that "lo" (or even "login") lacks the poetry of those other famous firsts, but there's something in the simplicity that still makes it compelling. It makes sense that the first message sent on this network would be a practical one. A simple start to the far-reaching impact of the internet as we see it today.

In the years after this first message was sent, the ARPANET grew drastically, spreading across the country and even across the Atlantic, as you can see from this map in 1977. It wasn't until 1984, however, that it became the internet we know today, with the introduction of TCP/IP, and the connection of many different networks to ARPANET.


ARPANET Technical Information: Geographic Maps, image courtesy of J. Noel Chiappa


One final thing we can credit ARPANET with is a stylistic convention that looks rather familiar:

Network Liaison List, from Network Measurement Center Collection, courtesy of The Kleinrock Center for Internet Studies at UCLA (CC-BY) / cropped and contrast increased from original


In this Network Liason List from 1974, each person's network address bears quite a resemblance to our email structure of today-each domain separated from the name by the humble @ sign. This we have to give credit to Ray Tomlinson of BBN Technologies, who realized that one could send personal messages over the ARPANET, and so he invented email. Even better, Ray says that initially, one of his fellow grad students argued that they shouldn't tell their supervisor about email, because it wasn't part of their scope of work!

So what does this all mean for Los Angeles? Sometimes we tend to forget that Los Angeles is the birthplace for quite a few groundbreaking technologies. From Jack Parsons lighting up rockets in the Arroyo Seco (and eventually helping to found Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to movies in Technicolor to SpaceX working on commercial spaceflight to Mars, we've been at the forefront for some time. 

But at the same time, we've grown up in a world where we equate the internet with Silicon Valley, and we now know that isn't quite the whole story. There is, to be honest, there's a small sense of satisfaction knowing that Los Angeles was where the internet was born. 


Emily Hummel is the creator of @arresteros + @brilliantmashup + internet explorers club

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