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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

September 3, 2009 06:02 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.

I'd never imagined that my 99-year-old mother would be on the Internet.

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."

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