The Internet at 40: 'Net pioneer still surprised by online world

Leonard Kleinrock remembers the day it began and knows what he'd do differently now

Can you remember a time when you didn't watch videos of silly cats on YouTube, or didn't buy everything from books to car parts to clothes online? What about mail? You know, the stuff that came in paper envelopes with little postage stamps?

Forty years ago Wednesday, something happened that changed the way we shop, do business, learn and stay in touch with relatives and friends. It was Sept. 2, 1969 when computer scientists at UCLA created a network connection between two computers. They set up the first node of what has become today's Internet.

"This was the day that the infant Internet took its first breath of life," said Leonard Kleinrock, a Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at UCLA and one of the men who enabled two computers to exchange data over a network for the very first time. "It was the first time...this baby came out and looked around and started talking to the world."

Leonard Kleinrock
Leonard Kleinrock, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Computer Science

As with many things so complicated and historically significant, there's some debate over the actual date of the birth. Some say it was that September day in '69 when the two computers first exchanged data. Others peg it on Oct. 29, 1969, when Kleinrock, who developed the principles behind packet-switching, sent a message to a second node at Stanford Research Institute.

Kleinrock, who received the 2007 National Medal of Science, told Computerworld that both days are significant.

"If Sept. 2 was the day the Internet took its first breath, we like to say Oct. 29 was the first day the infant Internet said its first words," he said.

While the Internet has evolved into something that has woven into daily life, it started out with one test that had the computer scientists involved both exhausted and anxious.

According to Kleinrock, there was a lot of anticipation that day, and about 20 people from the likes of GTE Corp., DARPA, Honeywell and Scientific Data Systems crowded into the computer lab to watch. "Everybody was ready to point the finger at the other guy if it didn't work. It was beautiful," said Kleinrock.

The router was a brand new Honeywell DDP 516, about the size of an old telephone booth and state of the art at the time, a Scientific Data Systems computer, a 50-foot cable connecting the two -- and a lot of faith.

"We were worried that this [Honeywell] machine, which had just been sent across the country, might not operate properly when we first threw the switch," said Kleinrock. "We were confident the technology was secure. I had simulated the concept of a large data network many, many times. All the connections. Hop-by-hop transmissions. Breaking messages into pieces. The mathematics proved it all and then I simulated it. It was thousands of hours of simulation."

And it did work.

Today, the computer scientist said he envisioned much of what the Internet has become, although there are parts of it he never could have imagined. Even 40 years ago, Kleinrock saw the Internet becoming as easy to use as a telephone, with access to it from their homes and offices.

"I saw how it could affect business. I saw that business data, financial data, accounting data, orders, files would be moved back and forth," he added. "But, if you will, the casual use, the social as opposed to the business use, was not there in my mind. I'd never imagined that my 99-year-old mother would be on the Internet. And she was until she passed away two years ago.... The fact that it does penetrate so deeply into society and everything we do -- how we play and interact with people and reach out and form communities -- that it occupies so much individual attention" was unfathomable four decades ago.

Kleinrock said he's not on Facebook and doesn't Twitter, but he understands the appeal and the global allure of such apps. Instead, he's attached to his BlackBerry, sends and receives a lot of e-mail and is a big user of Google search.

"I love the fact that we are constantly being surprised by new applications that just come along and take over the network," he noted. "E-mail was unpredicted and it came in and, whoosh, it just took over. Then there was Napster, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, all the social networks... whoosh, they just took over. Nobody saw these things coming. What I love about the Internet is that it's an innovation engine. You see things come out of nowhere and they'll just catch fire."

Kleinrock, however, also didn't anticipate the dark side of the Internet -- the spam, viruses, identity theft and denial-of-service attacks. And if he could go back and do it all over again, he'd try to develop the network with those things in mind.

"When we started this network, we knew everybody in the community that was using it," he explained. "We trusted everybody. We had a sense of openness and sharing. Everybody could participate and share with others. We did not build in limitations and restrictions. We did not add something we should have and that's strong user authentication and file authentication. If someone said they were Joe Smith, there would be a way to prove it.... I would build in the ability to enforce strong user and file authentications and then I would have turned it off immediately so we could have this free, open access to allow the network to catch fire and grow. Then, I would have introduced it once it was needed."

Going forward, Kleinrock said he might be able to predict what the Internet's infrastructure will look like years from now -- but there's just no way to tell what people will be doing with it.

"The Internet dominates my life," he said, laughing. "I'm always on. I am connected constantly. It's pervasive in my life. It's addictive. It's frustrating as heck with the spam and the slow processors and viruses and the fear that somebody from Nigeria wants to give me $500.

"You can characterize it as being the great leveler," Kleinrock added. "Wealth doesn't matter. Beauty doesn't matter. You can be short, fat, pimply and living in a hovel and reach out to people just as easy as someone who is tall, thin, handsome and living in a penthouse."

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