LO World

Like most decades, the 1960s was a turbulent time in the United States. John F. Kennedy was elected president and assassinated during the second year of his term. His successor Lyndon Johnson presided over a nation beset internally by tensions over civil rights, social welfare, and the Vietnam War. Externally, the country was locked in the Cold War with Russia. Expedience had brought Russia and the United States together as allies during World War II. Once the war was over, the relationship between two countries soured, marked by distrust and passive aggression. Russians resented America for its refusal to recognize its government as legitimate in the decades preceding the war and for its late entry into the war. Americans resented Russia because they perceived its Communist government as a threat to free-market capitalism and democracy.

The strain between Russia and the United States played out as industrial competition rather than military combat. In 1957, Russia launched the first satellite into space. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by commissioning new agencies to bolster America's role in scientific and technological innovation. One such agency was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), whom Kennedy would soon direct to land a human on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Another agency was the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). This agency's mission was to develop new technologies through collaborations between the American military, academic researchers, and private industry.

Members of ARPA envisioned a communication link between the rising number of computers spread across the country at various universities, government agencies, and big corporations. The project to carry out this vision was called ARPANET.

The dominant communication network at the time was run by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which held a government-sanctioned monopoly over the phone network that spanned the country. The phone network operated on a notion of dedicated circuits. When one party initiated a call to another, AT&T would reserve a route on the network to carry all voice or data traffic between the two parties. The route was held by the parties until the call ended. This scheme of carrying traffic over dedicated circuits is called circuit switching.

When members of ARPANET began evaluating technologies to use in their network, they deemed AT&T's circuit switching network to be unsuitable for connecting computers. If each exchange required its own circuit, then considerable hardware infrastructure would be needed to sustain many simultaneous connections. Additionally, a circuit switched network is vulnerable to disruption. If one link in the network goes down, then all connections relying on that link are lost.

The alternative communication scheme that the ARPANET members adopted was packet switching. When one computer wanted to send a message to another, the message was first broken into small packets. Each packet would be sent independently across the network to its destination, with each following a route that was determined dynamically by machines that would later be called routers. This design was resilient to disruptions and didn't tie up communication channels to the same degree as circuit switching.

The first message was sent across the ARPANET in October 1969, just months after the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon. A student at UCLA sent the message login to a computer at the Stanford Research Institute. The computer crashed after receiving just two characters: lo. What an auspicious beginning.

When packets travel across different routes, they may pass through many different kinds of machines, and they may end up arriving at their destination out of order. Some packets may even be lost in the transmission process because of congestion and hardware failures. Protocols were needed to establish a platform-independent structure for the packets, to order packets, and to request replacements for lost packets. The protocols that were eventually adopted for ARPANET were the Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP).

The ARPANET grew throughout the 1970s, eventually joining up with networks in Europe. Because the protocols behind ARPANET were open standards, private industries were able to join the network. By the mid-1980s, the ARPANET no longer needed sponsorship by the federal government. The network was decommissioned. In honor of the network, Vinton Cerf, who helped design the TCP/IP protocols, penned Requieum of the ARPANET:

It was the first, and being first, was best,
but now we lay it down to ever rest.
Now pause with me a moment, shed some tears.
For auld lang syne, for love, for years and years
of faithful service, duty done, I weep.
Lay down thy packet, now, O friend, and sleep.

Thus began the life of the internet, born out of a conflict between two nations who fought by making technological breakthroughs.