the twenty minutes in 1966 that created the internet -- 1/30/19

Today's selection -- from Dealers of Lightning by Michael A. Hiltzik. In 1966, Robert "Bob" Taylor, an employee at the U.S. government's Advanced Research Projects Agency, had an insight that led to the creation of the internet:

"[Bob Taylor's] most enduring legacy, however, was ... a leap of intuition that tied together everything else he had done. This was the ARPANET, the precursor of today's Internet.

"Taylor's original model of a nationwide computer network grew out of his observation that time-sharing was starting to promote the formation of a sort of nationwide computing brotherhood (at this time very few members were women). Whether they were at MIT, Stanford, or UCLA, researchers were all looking for answers to the same general questions. 'These people began to know one another, share a lot of information, and ask of one another, "How do I use this? Where do I find that?"' Taylor recalled. 'It was really phenomenal to see this computer become a medium that stimulated the formation of a human community.'

"There was still a long way to go before reaching that ideal, however. The community was less like a nation than a swarm of tribal hamlets, often mutually unintelligible or even mutually hostile. Design differences among their machines kept many groups digitally isolated from the others. The risk was that each institution would develop its own unique and insular culture, like related species of birds evolving inde­pendently on islands in a vast uncharted sea. Pondering how to bind them into a larger whole, Taylor sought a way for all groups to interact via their computers, each island community enjoying constant access to the others' machines as though they all lived on one contiguous virtual continent.

"This concept would develop into the ARPANET. The idea owed something to Licklider, who had earlier proposed what he dryly called an 'intergalactic network' of mainframes. During his time at ARPA the notion remained theoretical, however; it was hard enough to get small-scale time-sharing systems to run individually, much less in concert with one another. But Taylor judged that the technology had now progressed far enough to make the concept practical. He did not deceive himself: Building such a system meant overcoming prodigious obstacles. On the other hand, ARPAs generous umbrella sheltered hundreds of scientists and engineers whose prodigious talents, he rea­soned, were fully up to the challenge.

"One day in February 1966 Taylor knocked at the office of ARPAs director, the Austrian-born physicist Charles Herzfeld, armed with lit­tle more than this vague notion of a digital web connecting bands of time-sharers around the country. At any other agency he would have been expected to produce reams of documentation rationalizing the program and projecting its costs out to the next millennium; not ARPA. 'I had no formal proposals for the ARPANET,' he recounted later. 'I just decided that we were going to build a network that would connect these interactive communities into a larger community in such a way that a user of one community could connect to a distant commu­nity as though that user were on his own local system.'

Robert William Taylor in 2008

"After listening politely for a short time, Herzfeld interrupted Taylor's rambling presentation. He had followed his young associates theoreti­cal research closely enough to know already the gist of his ideas. All he had was a question.

"'How much money do you need to get it off the ground?'

"'I'd say about a million-dollars or so, just to start getting organized.'

"'You've got it,' Herzfeld said.

"'That,' Taylor remembered years later of the meeting at which the Internet was born, 'was literally a twenty-minute conversation.'

"Actually getting the program underway required some further maneu­vering, Taylor-style. His candidate for program manager, a twenty-nine­-year-old MIT researcher named Lawrence G. Roberts, refused to leave his secure and intellectually rewarding post at Lincoln Lab despite Tay­lor's relentless wheedling. After seven or eight months, Taylor was des­perate to resolve the standoff.

" 'Do we still support fifty-one percent of Lincoln Lab?' he asked Herzfeld, who confirmed the figure. Taylor asked Herzfeld to put in a call to Lincoln's director. 'Tell him that it's in Lincoln Lab's and ARPA's best Interests to tell Larry Roberts to come down and do this.' Within two weeks, Roberts accepted a job that would eventually secure him a permanent place in the computing Pantheon, as the Internet's found­ing engineer. As Taylor later crowed: 'I blackmailed Larry Roberts into fame!' "



Michael A. Hiltzik


Dealers of Lightning




Copyright 1999 by HarperBusiness


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