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Patt Morrison Asks | Leonard Kleinrock

Net worker

October 24, 2009|PATT MORRISON

The Internet, like victory, has many fathers. One of the best known is Leonard Kleinrock, a computer science professor at UCLA. He was in the campus computer lab 40 years ago, on Wednesday, Oct. 29, 1969. At 10:30 p.m., he and his colleagues were working on a computer the size of an old-fashioned phone booth when they sent the first computer message. It was launched via a packet-switching mathematical theory Kleinrock had conceived for transmitting data. The message traveled from UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute on a system set up through a Defense Department program. It was a Sistine-ceiling moment, a lightning spark of the Computer Age. Today, Kleinrock is still at UCLA, and so is that computer, the IMP, the Interface Message Processor. It will be the centerpiece of the forthcoming Kleinrock Internet Museum and Reading Room, not far from Kleinrock's office. As the now widely Webbed world marks its 40th anniversary, here's a bit of what it means to Kleinrock.

What happened in that big moment?

All we wanted to do was log in to the second host computer at SRI, 400 miles to the north, to see if one machine could talk to another. You have to type "L-O-G" and then the remote machine types "I-N." We typed the L and [called SRI and] said, did you get the L? Yep, got the L. Get the O? Yep, got the O. Typed the G and craaaaash. But the message couldn't have been shorter or more prophetic: LO, lo and behold. You can't beat that.

You call it a message and not an e-mail.

E-mail was introduced in 1971. That's when I realized this was about people communicating, because it suddenly dominated the traffic exchange. An e-mail has a protocol behind it that allows you to compose, send, acknowledge and have it recorded. We were just sending data from one machine to another with a meaning. The meaning was to log in.

Did you have any inkling about how broad and indispensable the Internet would become -- not as just an academic tool but a social tool?

You ask the key question. I did foresee that the Internet would be always on, always available, it would allow anybody to connect anyplace, anytime, and it would be invisible. But I did not foresee that my 99-year-old mother would be on the Internet. So the social side I totally missed. I thought this was about computer-to-computer communication or people-to-computer communication, not a mechanism for communities to form and grow and interact.

You weren't alone. You approached AT&T with packet switching and they weren't interested.

Worse than that. They said it wouldn't work. Then they said even if it does work, we want nothing to do with it. At that time, all their revenue was coming from voice communications. They made a long-term mistake big-time, but short term you could understand it.

What has the Internet begotten?

The Internet has constantly surprised us with applications that no one anticipated, so you can say the early Internet was the progenitor of these magnificent applications such as the Web, which is an application, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, peer-to-peer networking, file sharing and some cellphone technology as well.

And spam. Tell me you get spam like everybody else.

You bet I do. I have to train my Mac operating system what's junk and what's not, and it gets to be tiresome after awhile. Spam first appeared in 1994, the first [commercial] spam. [A law firm] sent out an e-mail to the world saying that there was a "green card" lottery, come to us and we'll help you get into the lottery. We looked at it and said, "What the hell is that? They can't advertise on our Internet!" So we sent messages back saying, "You can't do that. Bad. Stop. Horrible." We sent so much e-mail back to them that we took down their server, so by accident we created the first denial of service.

Are you on Facebook? Do you Twitter?

Nope. I don't want to know that you're picking up a cup of coffee right now, and you don't want to know that I'm holding a pen in my hand.

Thousands of people have made billions of dollars from the Internet. Have you been able to profit a bit too?

I've certainly not been in the billionaire class. I've made some nice money in some companies [I helped start] and investing in other companies. Back then, the early pioneers were not at all motivated by money. Our gratification was to share ideas with each other, do good technology and have others use it. There were five phases: The first were the pioneers, then you get the implementers, you get the value-adders, you get the deployers, and finally you get to the billionaires, and the billionaires were the latter phase when the people who developed the applications were able to take advantage of it.

Seven-year-olds can do things on computers that I can't. Do you ever find yourself in that position?

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