ARPANET connected universities working for the Department of Defence under its ARPA (now DARPA) program for new military technologies. In 1969, only four universities had computers connected to the network: UCLA, Stanford, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Utah.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on October 30, 2019

Fifty years ago, two letters were transmitted online, revolutionising how information, knowledge and communication would be exchanged and shared.

On 29 October 1969, Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and his graduate student Charley Kline in Boelter Hall’s Room 3420 wanted to send a transmission from UCLA’s computer to Bill Duvall, a scientist who was sitting at a computer at the Stanford Research Institute through ARPANET, the precursor to what is now known as the internet.

“I had no expectation that what I was doing that evening would be particularly significant,” Kline told OZY.

ARPANET connected universities working for the Department of Defence under its ARPA (now DARPA) program for new military technologies. In 1969, only four universities had computers — which, Kline connected to the network: UCLA, Stanford, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Utah.

The message sent by Kleinrock and Kline was to be “login”. Their system crashed, however, as soon as they typed the second letter. It took an hour to send the whole word, but by then, “lo” cemented its place in the internet’s history. For Kleinrock, the message took on a completely different meaning.

“‘L’ and ‘O’ is ‘hello’ and a more succinct, more powerful, more prophetic message we couldn’t have wished for,” Kleinrock told OZY.

Kline’s computer had just 128 Kb of memory and 24 Mb of disk space.

Two years later in 1971, Ray Tomlinson, a computer engineer and programmer for BBN Technologies, sent the first email. Tomlinson also, for the first time, used the “@” sign to designate a specific recipient of a message. By 1971 ARPANET connected 15 computers.

Norway was the first country outside the US to join the ARPANET, when the Norwegian Seismic Array joined in 1973. During that year a connection was made to the University of London computer lab run by Dr Peter Kirstein. “Emails did not come to me in London,” he remembers, recalling how he had to connect to USC to read his messages.

internet Charleyt Kline message

Rival networks started. There was MERIT in Michigan, CYCLADES in France, SERCnet in the UK. But none were compatible. ARPA recruited Vinton Cerf — an assistant professor at Stanford who had worked on the ARPANET as a graduate student at UCLA. He came up with a Common Internetwork Protocol, and that’s when the web began to take shape. Cerf’s description of this protocol, published in December 1974, contains the first use of the word “Internet”.

It wasn’t until 1978 that Cerf’s protocol was perfected on the ARPANET. ARPA then spent a few years encouraging all the other networks to adopt it, and it was officially launched on 1 January 1983. The ARPANET became part of a larger Internet, albeit tiny by today’s standards. That, laughs Kirstein, “is when the shit hit the fan”.

In 1989, the World Wide Web, as we know it now, was invented by UK computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee alongside the technologies to access, create and share web pages. He published the first web page in 1991.

The services and websites that define the modern internet were not created until years later. Amazon did not begin selling products until 1995, not as a one-stop emporium but, rather, as a virtual bookstore. Google’s first search was in 1998 and iTunes was launched in 2003.

Today’s largest social media network, Facebook, began in 2004. Video platform YouTube was launched in 2005, with Twitter following a year later. The White House created an account in 2007 but it took two years to send a tweet. Today’s favourite social media platform Instagram started in 2010.