Happy 40th Birthday, Internet

According to the book Nerds 2.0.1 quoting Len Kleinrock: “We had the first switch, called an IMP, which was wheeled into my laboratory over the Labor Day weekend in 1969. And on Tuesday of that next week [September 2] we had bits moving back and fortch between that switch and my host computer.”

That makes today the 40th anniversary of the Internet.

To celebrate, here’s an excerpt from The Power of Mobility:

From the earliest days, the government, and especially the defense department was the biggest customer of the emerging computer industry. Much of this spending was done in university research labs.

In 1951, MIT founded Lincoln Labs, focused on air defense. The projects undertaken at Lincoln required collecting data from many sources resulting in Lincoln becoming a hotbed for innovations in computer networking.

In the second half of 1957, the U.S.S.R. test-fired the first intercontinental ballistic missile and launched the Sputnik I artificial satellite, initiating the arms race and the space race. In January 1958, President Eisenhower established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to address these threats.

J.C.R. Licklider, a Lincoln veteran, became the first director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) within ARPA. Early in 1963, Licklider proposed networking together the computers in research labs being funded by ARPA to make these expensive resources more available and productive. In 1966, Bob Taylor replaced Licklider as head of the IPTO and recruited Larry Roberts from Lincoln Labs to turn this concept into reality.

The network, dubbed ARPAnet by Roberts, ended up building upon advances in computer networking made by Roberts at MIT, Donald Davies and Roger Scantlebury of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, Paul Baran of the Rand Corporation, and Len Kleinrock of UCLA. These new technologies became known as packet switching. ARPA tried to get AT&T, the telecom industry leader, to participate in building ARPAnet. Bob Taylor recalls “When I asked AT&T to participate in the ARPAnet, they assured me that packet switching wouldn’t work.”

So the research community had to build it themselves. Boston firm, Bolt, Baraneck & Newman (BBN) was selected to build the critical piece of equipment, the Interface Message Processor (IMP) to link the computers together. The first IMP was installed at UCLA over the Labor Day weekend in 1969. The second was installed on October 1 at Stanford. The first message was sent between them and the ARPAnet, which would become the Internet, was born.

Initial growth came slowly. Four nodes were online by the end of 1969. By 1974 the network had only grown to 64 nodes, and by 1981 there were still only 213 nodes. In the 1980s the network was roughly doubling every year, and the numbers finally started to reach meaningful numbers. By 1989 there were 150,000 nodes on the network. Between 1986 and 1989, the National Science Foundation slowly took over administration of the network, acknowledging the expansion of the value of the Internet beyond purely military purposes. Growth began to explode. By April 1993 there were nearly 1.5 million nodes on the Internet.

Applications also came slowly at first. Originally, the network was primarily used to log in to remote computers. In 1972, Ray Tomlinson of BBN sent the first e-mail across the ARPAnet. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee of Switzerland’s CERN started writing a program he called the worldwide web. CERN published the program in 1991. In 1992, Congress passed a law allowing the use of the Internet for commercial purposes, unleashing an unprecedented wave of entrepreneurship.

1995 was the year the Internet burst into the consciousness of the general public. Most dramatically, Netscape’s unbelievably rich initial public offering (IPO) of stock on August 9 captured everyone’s attention and launched a thousand startups. However, other companies that would have a much more permanent impact on the Internet, the economy, and how we individually interact with the world were already on their way and celebrated significant milestones during the year. In March, Yahoo was incorporated, graduating from a hobby to a business. Amazon’s online store opened in July. The first auction on eBay was launched on Labor Day. So, in a short six months, three of the companies that have come to define the Internet experience came into being.

Over the coming years, the incredible power of networked computing to deliver to us dynamic content, enable us to buy and sell in new ways, and connect us more directly to our extended communities fundamentally changed how we live, how we interact with the world, and how we run our businesses.

“Metcalfe’s Law”

Why did the Internet have such a broad and deep impact on the world? I believe Robert Metcalfe explains it perfectly in what has become known as Metcalfe’s Law.

Bob Metcalfe is best known in technology circles as the inventor of Ethernet. As an early participant in the building and use of the Internet, Bob recognized the need for high speed intermachine connections that responded well as traffic increased. From this recognition came the Ethernet protocol, and later Bob built a successful company, 3Com, around this expertise.

Bob didn’t see growing traffic as a curse, but rather a blessing. Bob observed that the value of any network increases exponentially with the number of participants in the network, and this simple, but true observation has borne his name ever since.

What happened in 1995 is that the Internet reached a tipping point in the number of users. The value of the network outweighed the cost of connecting, so more people and businesses joined, further increasing the value. By the end of 1995, you couldn’t afford to NOT be connected to the Internet, especially if you were a business.

Today, the Internet is fully integrated into our lives, our business processes, most services offered to customers, and a growing number of products.

One Response to “Happy 40th Birthday, Internet”

  1. […] that the Mobility Revolution is as big of a deal as the PC (or Microprocessor) Revolution and the Internet Revolution. Just as those two technology revolutions fundamentally changed how we, as individuals interact […]

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