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Internet pops champagne on (second) 40th birthday

Lo and behold: It all began with a memory overflow...

Today, the Internet celebrates its second 40th birthday.

Some date the dawn of the net to September 12, 1969, when a team of engineers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) connected the first two machines on the first node of ARPAnet, the US Department of Defense–funded network that eventually morphed into the modern interwebs.

But others - including Professor Leonard Kleinrock, who led that engineering team - peg the birthday to October 29, when the first message was sent between the remote nodes. "That's the day," Kleinrock tells The Reg, "the internet uttered its first words."

In the late 1960s, the DoD's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) set out to build a computer network that would let you, in the words of founding father Bob Taylor, "go anywhere you want to go." ARPA - now known as DARPA - contracted with Boston-based BBN Technologies to produce the so-called IMPs (Interface Message Processors) that would operate each node on this world-spanning network.

The first node would be UCLA, whose engineering group also included a young graduate student named Vint Cerf. And the BBN team included Bob Kahn, who would one day team with Cerf to write the internet-underpinning Transmission Control Protocol (TCP).

BBN shipped the first IMP to UCLA over the 1969 Labor Day weekend, and UCLA wasn't expecting it. "BBN had told us they were running behind, and we didn't expect them to suddenly ship air freight the IMP - and they did. Sons of bitches," Kleinrock says with a chuckle. But Kleinrock, Cerf, and Co. had things up and running on September 2, the day after Labor Day, sending bits between the IMP - a Honeywell DDP-516 mini computer with 12K of memory - and a 32-bit SDS Sigma 7 host machine.

"That's the day that the infant internet took its first breath of life," Kleinrock says. But he also says that September 2 isn't the net's birthday. The true birthday, he insists, came several weeks later, when the UCLA node had a chat with the second ARPAnet node at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where Douglas Englebart had cooked up his seminal NLS online system.

A 50kbps AT&T pipe connected the UCLA and SRI nodes, and the first message sent was the word "log" - or at least that was the idea. UCLA would send the "log" and SRI would respond with "in." But after UCLA typed the "l" and the "o," the "g" caused a memory overflow on the SRI IMP.

October 29 is also the anniversary of another famous crash: the stock market meltdown of 1929.

"So the first message was 'Lo,' as in 'Lo and Behold,'" Kleinrock says. "We couldn't have asked for a better message - and we didn't plan it."

But, he ads, the full log-in was complete within the next few hours.


The Computer History Museum offers more on the net's second fortieth birthday here:

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