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Happy Belated 40th Birthday To The Internet!

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois.better pencil His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at an the 40th birthday of the internet.

I began writing this online message 40 years to the minute when the internet went live.

At 7:00 pm on Oct. 29, 1969 UCLA computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock, who organized the internet’s first day, had one of his programmers, Charley Kline, send a message from his computer at UCLA’s engineering school to his colleague Bill Duvall, who was sitting at a second computer at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Palo Alto. Kline typed LOG, one slow character at a time, and Duvall’s computer was to supply the IN to form the complete command, login, which would connect the machines. Duvall was also connected by telephone to Kline, and he reported each letter as it got through. First the “L,” then the “O.” But when Klein typed the “G,” the Stanford computer crashed. That makes LO the first electronic message.

A month later, the University of California at Santa Barbara joined the first computer network, called ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Network, and in December, the University of Utah was added. Eventually the loose configuration of computers at research facilities around the country, and then around the world, came to be called the internet, or as Dr. House would have it, the interweb.

120 years earlier, Henry David Thoreau, skeptical of the telegraph — which we sometimes refer to in retrospect as the Victorian internet — wrote in Walden, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

The telegraph succeeded despite Thoreau’s complaint, but Samuel Morse, the telegraph’s inventor, thought Bell’s telephone was just a pretty toy. Morse was convinced that no one would want an invention that was unable to provide a permanent, written record of a conversation. These minutes from a Western Union meeting clarify concerns that no one would use the telephone to communicate anything important: “Bell’s instrument uses nothing but the voice, which cannot be captured in concrete form. . . . We leave it to you to judge whether any sensible man would transact his affairs by such a means of communications.”

And so not everyone was excited when UCLA spoke to Stanford. Kleinrock has noted the almost prophetic nature of that first message, “Lo,” as in “Lo and behold.” But except for programmers, most people in 1969 had little use for one computer, let alone two hooked together. What could these machines — electronic brains or electronic toys — possibly have to say to one another?

The internet may be 40 years old today, and no one reading this post would dream of starting their day without checking email, Facebook, and one or more online news sources, but until the 1990s few people used the Net. For all anyone knew, it was little more than a series of tubes.

In the time-honored tradition of distrusting new communications devices, in those early days computer giant IBM and telecom monopolist AT&T saw no future for networked computers and refused to bid to develop that first Interface Message Processor. In order for the internet to spread, they reasoned, managers would have to type. Even computer programmers wrote with pencil and paper, not on their mainframes, which were designed to crunch numbers, not words. Typing was for secretaries and the odd hunt-and-peck writer who didn’t have access to the typing pool.

Several things helped the internet take off when it finally did, not in 1969 but in the 1990s. Affordable, user-friendly personal computers, like the 1984 Apple Macintosh; easy-to-use email programs like Eudora (1988) that worked like word processors; and browsers like Mosaic, launched in 1993, which enabled ordinary people to search the web without a computer science degree. Without those developments, the Net would have remained the province of researchers and nerds instead of a welcoming home for almost 1.7 billion people around the world, everyone from honest citizens like you and me, to stalkers and spies, dollar-hungry marketers, hate-mongers, pornographers, and Nigerian scammers.

Talking about the internet’s birthday, Kleinrock told CNN, “We didn’t anticipate the level of the dark side we see today. The culture of the early Internet was one of trust. . . . I knew every user on the Internet in those early days.” Back in 1969 no one suspected that the internet would even have a dark side. But no one knew, either, that along with “What hath God wrought,” and “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you,” and “Fiat lux,” “LO” would go down in history as the start of a great communications revolution whose dark side is but a minor annoyance compared to the enlightenment and the fun-filled hours it brings to us, and allows us to bring to others.

And no one suspected, back in 1969, that an infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of computers would produce, not “Hamlet,” but HamBASIC.

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