Lo, it began: Internet founder recalls first message (News Feature)
By Andy Goldberg Oct 28, 2009, 2:18 GMT
Los Angeles - Samuel Morse had the prescience to select a suitably imposing quote with which to make history when he sent the first telegraph message in 1844. He tapped out: 'What God hath wrought?'
Some 125 years later, on October 29, 1969, UCLA Professor Leonard Kleinrock was in too much of a rush to meet a deadline to think up any grand statements. Yet his act of sending the first information ever transmitted over the internet stands in historical significance alongside Morse's accomplishment.
'We only had only myself and my programmer there,' Kleinrock, 75, recalled recently. 'There was no camera, no voice recorder and only a small entry in our log to document the event. We did not prepare an elegant message like the others. We weren't that smart.'
Others might disagree with his self-deprecation.
The genial researcher was the recipient of the National Medal of Science in 2008 in recognition of his invention of packet switching, which, even 40 years later, remains the foundation of the internet.
At the time, the experiment did not go quite as planned. In fact, Kleinrock didn't even succeed in logging on from his computer at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to the only other computing node connected to the nascent internet, a mainframe at the Stanford Research Institute in Northern California.
The first-ever traffic on the internet was cut off after just two letters of the login message, with the resulting transmission reading 'lo' - itself an almost biblical exhortation, as in 'lo and behold,' Kleinrock likes to say.
The machine that facilitated the transmission, the world's first internet router, was known as an interface messaging processor (IMP). The size of a refrigerator, it still sits in a small room with nary a commemorative plaque, down the corridor from Kleinrock's office on the UCLA campus.
Kleinrock notes that even the simplest of cellphones has vastly more computing power. But he calls the hulking device a 'terrific machine' and beats on the casing to show that it is 'military hardened.'
'It's so ugly, it's beautiful,' he says in a Youtube video as he displays the device without obvious pride. 'It's a dear friend of mine.
'It did the job, and these switches continued to improve - higher speed, more functionality, much more storage - and run today's internet.'
But it's a testament to his technological vision that the architecture he pioneered still powers the innovations of Google, Facebook, Twitter and the other billion-dollar internet wonders.
That's no fluke, says Kleinrock, who designed the data-packaging system to scale to future standards, and who predicted the massive outgrowth of ubiquitous, always-on, internet services in the 1969 press release announcing the first data transmission.
But even he was surprised at the amazing growth of sites like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and the like.
'No one saw it coming. It hit us on the side of our heads,' he says. 'No one can predict what will come when we have 1.5 billion people thinking of things.'
If Kleinrock has one regret, it's not foreseeing how the open architecture he was creating would facilitate what he calls 'the dark side' of the internet: the privacy-stealing, kiddie-porn peddling, terror-planning criminals who take advantage of the web's reach and anonymity to hatch and execute their schemes.
'The thing that is most worrisome and regrettable is that we could have prevented some of it,' he says, by providing for strong user ID and strong file ID. 'Had we done that, we should have turned it off immediately, but when the dark side started to emerge we should have reintroduced it.'
Nevertheless, Kleinrock remains a firm believer in the transformative power of technology. He sees strong prospects for green technology, biotechnology and embedded computing to transform everyday artifacts - from clothing to light switches to walls - into smart internet devices that people will interact with easily.
Kleinrock is planning a more fitting environment for the first IMP, which he says 'should be a shrine to this country.'
'They were going to throw this machine away, and I salvaged it, he says. 'It's not heralded, it's not in a showcase, it's not in a shrine like it should be.'
That's about to change. According to Kleinrock, he rejected a request from the Smithsonian Institution in favour of installing the piece at the entrance to a new engineering building at UCLA.
'That's where it all began,' he says, patting the machine. 'That's where it all began.'