Internet Explorers

Tracking down the hometown birthplace of the Internet

deepPhoto: Cambridge Historical Society

By Gavin Kleespies


he Internet! It’s great, it’s everywhere, your socks probably have URLs on them, but it wasn’t always here. So that raises the question: Where’d it come from? Turns out, a big part of it came out of Cambridge.

When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October of 1957, the U.S. government got serious about technology. Two government agencies were created by the Eisenhower administration: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Advanced Research Project Agency. ARPA, which was later renamed DARPA when “Defense” was added to the title, created the Internet, although it’s hard to say the Internet was invented in any one place or time as it was an amalgamation of several different advancements—a major, maybe the most major, happening in Cambridge.

Computers were rapidly growing as major elements of all technological development throughout the 20th century. In Cambridge, Vannevar Bush had created the first analog computer at MIT, and Howard Aiken later developed the first digital computer at Harvard.

Once computer scientists had created reliable computers, the next step in the evolution of technology was to create a way to link them together on a network to share information. An agency of ARPA called the Information Processing Techniques Office was at the head of networking research. Bob Taylor, who became the third director of IPTO, first considered networking computers together, and applied for funding to explore the idea.

In July 1968, ARPA/IPTO sent out a request for bids to build the IMPs to more than 140 companies, and just before Christmas the contract was awarded to BBN in Cambridge. BBN stood for Bolt, Beranek and Newman—it’s now a part of Raytheon—and had been launched in 1948 as an acoustical consulting company in Cambridge by MIT professors Leo Beranek and Richard Bolt, along with Bolt’s former student Robert Newman. Since its inception, the company had grown and bought a number of computers, advancing its work into the realm of computer science and technology.

Frank Heart, a former computer systems engineer at MIT’s Lincoln Lab, joined BBN and became the head of what became known as the Interface Message Processor team. In 1969, his team began work on the software. The first host-to-host connection, from UCLA to Stanford, was attempted in October 1969. The first log-in crashed the IMPs, but the next one worked. The characters “L, G, and O” were transferred making the ARPAnet a reality. It was the “Watson, come here, I need you” of the computer age.

Each month for the next year, “nodes” of the ARPAnet were added to the network at various institutions. At MIT, Bob Metcalfe built the first high-speed (100 Kbps) network interface between the MIT IMP and a PDP-6 computer to the ARPAnet in 1971. BBN modified and streamlined the ARPAnet for the next several years as microprocessing and increasing speeds enhance the network. By 1972, ARPAnet was ready to go public.

To achieve the goal of a universal public network, BBN developed software to enable mail to be sent electronically on the ARPAnet, randomly choosing the @ sign from the non-alphabet symbols on the keyboard, and thereby starting the “user@host” convention for emails. Other conventions were also used for about a decade, but by the late 1980s the “@” symbol became a worldwide standard.

Throughout the 1970s, various research groups and institutions develop networks based on BBN’s foundation. January 1, 1983 marks the date of the start of the Internet, when all the old hosts of the ARPAnet officially switched over to the newly developed TCP/IP protocol. It was the culmination of years of work, much of which was done just blocks from the Fresh Pond Rotary, where one of the world’s most important innovations was developed.

Gavin Kleespies is director of programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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