How the Internet was Invented

Soon after my son introduced me to his new girlfriend, I sent her a Facebook “friend” invitation. Two minutes later, my son called to berate me for committing a grave social network faux pas, to which I responded, “Listen, I invented the Internet, and I’ll do whatever I darn well please there.”

Although I cannot take as much credit as Al Gore for inventing the Internet, I did play a small part in its development. The passing of Ray Tomlinson, the man credited with inventing email and the now ubiquitous ‘@’ sign, takes me back to my first job out of graduate school, as a programmer at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) in 1978. I had just received my Master’s degree in Computer Science from UC Berkeley, where we learned about operating systems by adding features to a new “toy” OS called UNIX. BBN was in the midst of creating the Arpanet (the precursor to the Internet), under the watchful eye of DARPA’s Vint Cerf. The attraction was mutual: BBN was looking for UNIX kernel programmers (there were not very many of us around in 1978), and I was fascinated by UNIX and the ARPANET.

My first task was to complete the implementation and debugging of the first implementation of FTP (File Transfer Protocol), which had been written by Jack Haverty in TOPS-20 assembly language. Next I investigated a performance issue in the Arpanet’s router, known as the IMP (Interface Message Processor). My fix to the problem became the basis for UNIX’s priority buffering algorithm and is part of the ubiquitous Linux kernel to this day.

The team at BBN was an astounding group of technical minds, including Frank Heart, Dave Walden, Ray Tomlinson, Carl Howe, Steve Kent and Jack Haverty. These are the people who wrote the RFC’s (Requests for Comments) that define the basic protocols, routing algorithms and security mechanisms that scaled into today’s Internet.

You would expect that such technical giants understood the importance of what they were creating, and that their impact on the world might go to their heads. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I remember is a very democratic and down-to-earth environment, where every idea was fairly considered, even when it came from an inexperienced engineer like me.

Most of the engineers who developed the Arpanet had no idea of the impact it would have on the world. As far as we were concerned, we were building a communication network that would be used by the military and by academia, not by all of humanity. An apocryphal story says that when Ray Tomlinson invented the first email, he told a fellow engineer, “Don’t tell anyone – we’re not supposed to be working on this.” I do not know whether this story is true, but, far more importantly, I know that it could be true. Fortunately, the nameless engineer in the story did tell someone else, and the rest is history.

I believe that this atmosphere of humility and democratic discussion played a major role in the success of the Arpanet. The technologies are rock-solid because they were created by a team that worked together seamlessly, that never pulled rank, and that respected the possibility that a great idea could come from anywhere and anyone, even a new graduate like me.

Ray Tomlinson was a key part of that team, and his passing reminds us of how human beings can overcome physical limitations (like distance) via ingenuity, passion and humility.

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