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EDGE / FRONTIERS: Four Fieldss That Have Been Shaped
by, and Are Shaping, Southern California

INFORMATION SCIENCES : Thirty Years Ago, a Handful of Professors and Grad Students Cobbled Together a Clunky Computer Network. Today, Some of These Internet Kings Dream of Wiring the Solar System.

July 25, 1999|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times staff writer Michael A. Hiltzik's last piece for the magazine was an excerpt of his book "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age." He won a Pulitzer Prize this year for beat reporting

The machine arrived air express from Boston the Saturday before Labor Day, 1969. It was a great steel behemoth, with an armored exterior and four steel hooks on top, which was lucky, because it wouldn't fit in the elevator of UCLA's Boelter Hall, and its handlers feared they might have to winch it up the side of the building by crane. Instead they managed to get it up to an interior catwalk on a three-story forklift and into Room 3400.

"We didn't even have a camera," Leonard Kleinrock recalls. "Edison would have. Samuel Morse, too, probably. But we didn't."

He speaks with palpable resignation about this opportunity lost forever to mark the birth of a new age. The lightbulb, the telegraph . . . the Web. The machine being installed that summer day in UCLA's engineering building, under the eyes of a handful of professors and graduate students, was Interface Message Processor #1--the first of the engagingly named IMPs to be installed anywhere. These were the machines that formed the backbone of what was then known as the ARPANET. The name came from ARPA, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, and was to morph, many years later, into the Internet.

Kleinrock was in charge of the team of grad students writing the software for the first IMP and overseeing its installation. Then, as now, he was a bantamweight dynamo, compact and wiry (he's a black belt in karate and a marathon runner), with a Cagneyesque delivery that still betrays his New York origins. He is also a brilliant theoretical engineer whose 1963 MIT doctoral dissertation laid out a system of transmitting digital data over networks that would remain the standard for decades.

To Len Kleinrock, there can be no argument that Labor Day, 1969, marks the Internet's birth and, therefore, validates UCLA's claim to be its cradle.

Not everyone buys that claim. "The Internet has had a lot of midwives and it still continues to be reborn," says Vinton G. Cerf, an executive at MCI WorldCom who was present that Labor Day as one of Kleinrock's graduate students.

Suffice to say that something extraordinary was born that weekend in Southern California, even if none of those in attendance claim to have had the foresight to imagine the new medium's commercial and informational reach.

The team had come together by chance and opportunity, many of them attracted by UCLA engineering professor Gerald Estrin. There were Vint Cerf and Stephen D. Crocker, best friends from Van Nuys, and Jonathan Postel--another graduate of Van Nuys High School, a shy man with a rabbinical beard who would grow up to become one of the Internet's worldwide gatekeepers.

In 1969 they were very much guides without a road map. No one had constructed a large-scale computer network before. Nor was the network the focus of a great deal of technical interest.

"Among grad students, the hot topics were programming languages, artificial intelligence, graphics and machine architecture," Crocker says. "Networking didn't have the sizzle for a majority of people. I suffered from similar thoughts--I used to say the problem with it was it only had socially redeeming features."

If the grad students were indifferent, their professors were outright hostile. ARPA's network was a project they feared would drain their precious research budgets or, worse, allow outside institutions to poach their computer resources. This attitude was especially prevalent among Eastern universities like MIT, where the computer centers were older, established and better-funded.

That doesn't mean that West Coast computer faculties were entirely free of opposition to sharing these multimillion-dollar treasures. That had become clear in 1965, when ARPA offered to finance a project to link three identical IBM 704s belonging to UCLA--at the engineering department, the business school and the campus computer center. The plans led to an outbreak of intramural jealousies and disagreements so severe that, to ARPA's astonishment, the university turned down its offer--reportedly $2 million. "It was sheer politics," Kleinrock says. "We never even got to the technical issues."

Therefore, it is no surprise that the idea of sharing computing cycles with alien institutions was an unpopular one. Nevertheless, ARPA's force of will (and its money) soon prevailed. Four West Coast institutions--UCLA, the private Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah--were signed up as the first four nodes, with UCLA winning responsibility to monitor and test the overall network's performance. Characteristically, the professors who were the agency's formal grant recipients delegated the design scut work to their students, who began mapping out what would become a world-altering new communications medium in a series of informal get-togethers.

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