How Sputnik made the Internet (out in the Land of the Lotus)

On October 29, 1969, exactly 43 years ago today, in a tiny lab called the Network Measurement Center, run by Lawrence Kleinrock at the University of California in Los Angeles, the world changed forever. 

Here’s the full story: Twelve years earlier, on October 4, 1967, the U.S. Congress had suddenly realized, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first artificial Earth satellite (Sputnik 1) that its primary enemy and rival had developed the capacity to create previously unimagined military technology. 

As a direct result of Sputnik, in February of 1958 Congress passed Public Law 85-325 (and issued Department of Defense Directive 5105.15) authorizing the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) by the Supplemental Military Construction Authorization (Air Force). ARPA, which was later renamed DARPA (for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), was slightly paranoid from its onset. “DARPA’s original mission,” according to documents the still-extant agency circulates today, “was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space.”

From 1958 to 1965, ARPA’s emphasis was on vast projects with international impact: Space travel, ballistic missiles, nuclear test detection, and counterinsurgency R&D. By the later 1960s, however, the space, missile, and other military research had been reassigned to NASA and the military services, leaving ARPA to begin focusing focus on several small, exploratory projects — including one designed to connect the computers at various university research labs that were doing work for ARPA.  

In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.

The idea for an "Intergalatic Computer Network," based on the use of packet switching, had first been posited by the computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider in 1962. By mid-1968, Licklider’s mentee Bob Taylor had created a practical plan for a computer network. In a paper he wrote with Licklider later that year, Taylor suggested “in a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” (This may have been overstating things a bit.)

Of the 140 computer science contractors contacted by ARPA in 1968, most thought the idea too outlandish to attempt, and only twelve submitted a bid to work on it. ARPA awarded the contract to BBN Technologies in April, 1969, and, following Taylor’s plan — in which a network composed of small computers called Interface Message Processors functioned like routers to interconnect distant sites using phone lines leased from AT&T — the system was designed and installed in nine months.

The first four network nodes were located at the Stanford Research Institute, the Network Measurement Center at the UCLA, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. The first message on what came to be known as the ARPAnet was sent by UCLA student Charley Kline, at 10:30 pm on October 29, 1969. (See the network log written and initialed by Kline below). He transmitted from the UCLA’s SDS Sigma 7 computer to the Stanford Research Institute’s SDS 940 computer. The message text was supposed to be the word “login.” But after the l and the o were transmitted, the system thencrashed. So the very first “internet” message  was, appropriately enough in retrospect, “lo.” 

About an hour later, having recovered from the crash, the SDS Sigma 7 computer completed a full “login.” 

By 1972, the ARPANET was comprised of 37 computers. 

In 1983, the ARPANET was opened up to universities and various scientific bodies, and in due time the Internet as we know it was born.