Vanity Fair's oral history of the Internet

The July issue of Vanity Fair has a long and fascinating oral history of the Internet. Keenan Mayo and Peter Newcomb interviewed many of the scientists who developed it at ARPA.

Shown here: "The Founding Fathers: Leonard Kleinrock, Paul Baran, and Larry Roberts They were present at the creation. Baran, at the Rand Corporation in the late 1950s, conjured the idea of “packet switching.” Roberts, chief computer scientist at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, oversaw the creation of the Arpanet in the late 1960s. In Kleinrock’s laboratory at U.C.L.A., in 1969, this new digital way of transmitting data–precursor of today’s Internet–came to life." (Photo by Christian Witkin)

On an eight-month deadline, the BBN team delivered their prototype I.M.P. to U.C.L.A. on August 30, 1969.

Leonard Kleinrock: September 2, 1969, is when the first I.M.P. was connected to the first host, and that happened at U.C.L.A. We didn’t even have a camera or a tape recorder or a written record of that event. I mean, who noticed? Nobody did. Nineteen sixty-nine was quite a year. Man on the moon. Woodstock. Mets won the World Series. Charles Manson starts killing these people here in Los Angeles. And the Internet was born. Well, the first four everybody knew about. Nobody knew about the Internet.

So the switch arrives. Nobody notices. However, a month later, Stanford Research Institute gets their I.M.P., and they connect their host to their switch. Think of a square box, our computer, connected to a circle, which is the I.M.P., 5, 10 feet away. There’s another I.M.P. 400 miles north of us in Menlo Park, basically at Stanford Research Institute. And there’s a high-speed line connecting those two. We are now prepared to connect two hosts together over this fledgling network.

So on October 29, 1969, at 10:30 in the evening, you will find in a log, a notebook log that I have in my office at U.C.L.A., an entry which says, “Talked to SRI host to host.” If you want to be, shall I say, poetic about it, the September event was when the infant Internet took its first breath.



  1. I though it was Al Gore who “took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

    (To be perfectly fair to Al, he was the main force behind securing federal funding for the national computing centers which did create the Internet. I just couldn’t resist.)

  2. Oh yes, Al is here:

    The Legislator: Vice President Al Gore
    He got a bum rap. Gore never claimed to have “invented the Internet,” though columnists said otherwise and had sport with him anyway. Here’s what Gore really did: throughout the 1980s, as a senator from Tennessee, he stood out as a highly visible, early proponent of networking. In 1991, Congress passed the High-Performance Computing Act, also known as “the Gore Act,” which paved the way for a privatized, commercialized Internet that could thrive and evolve outside the government’s hands—in other words: the Internet as we know it today.

  3. No Mark. Al Gore really did say:

    “During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the internet.”

    He said it on tape during an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN in 1999. It’s just spin-doctoring to make this seem otherwise.

    Once again, he DID secure funding for the folks who did create the Internet, but that’s hardly the same thing.

    And if we’re to credit him for that, should we not also blame him for his part in the Clipper Chip, Key Escrow and the DMCA?

  4. Can you tell the difference between “I took the initiative in creating the internet” and “I created the internet?”


    I didn’t think so. Your agenda has blinded you.

  5. these gentleman certainly laid the technical foundations. They, however, did not “invent” the internet. Neither did the first serious scientists and scholars who shared questions and findings via long distance teletype. Nor can the military users claim the title.

    No, the true inventors of the internet and worldwide web were those proud few who did everything against the rules of the time. The first game playing on company time, the first porn (sharing dirty jokes I guess) and all those other activities that REALLY matter – they deserve the credit. Until subversion entered the picture, all there was was a glorified, expanded office intercom system.

  6. Yet another example of older white men perpetuating an entrenched patriarchy. “The Founding Fathers?” Bah! Colonialist, Imperialists foisting their decadent “packets” onto the world.

  7. Unusual Suspect, I’m sure mark is well aware of what Gore said. As he correctly points out, Gore never claimed to have “invented the Internet”, which is the false claim that got widely attributed to him, thanks to Declan McCullagh and the right-wing noise machine.

    What Gore actually claimed is to have contributed to the creation of the Internet — which he actually did! He never claimed to have created the Arpanet or the NSFnet, but according to Vint Cerf (co-designer of the TCP/IP protocol) the transition from NSFnet to modern Internet was made possible in part by legislation that Gore wrote as a Senator in 1986.

    So yes, Al Gore really did take the initiative in creating the Internet, and he really didn’t claim to have “invented the Internet”, and you really are arguing dishonestly.

  8. Mark and Avram:

    You would know that I acknowledged Al Gore’s contribution to the Internet twice already in this thread if you had read either of my posts #1 or #4 above. Are you sure you are not blinded by agendas of your own?

    And Mark, it’s unfair of you to pretend to ask me a question, immediately answer for me, and use that as the basis of your rebuttal.


    Interesting point. An unofficial (and probably apocryphal) story has it that one of the earliest uses for TCP/IP was to avoid paying long-distance charges.

    The sub-1 kbps modems of the day necessitated using long-distance phone lines 24/7. But with TCP/IP, packets could be handed off from one “local” network node to the next, traveling cross-country in a series of local hops and never requiring a long-distance connection.

  9. “You would know that I acknowledged Al Gore’s contribution to the Internet twice already in this thread..”

    Then what is your point?

  10. I have a bit of difficulty with a history of the Internet that jumps pretty much straight from e-mail to the Web, bypassing gopher (how can you have a history of the Internet and not mention gopher?! When Mosaic was first introduced it was primarily used as a very nice gopher client – that’s where the content was.); bypassing Hytelnet (the first hypertext organized access to Internet content); bypassing Archie, WAIS, and all of the other early Internet information access systems.

    It’s not for nothing that the O’Reilly book Managing Internet Information Systems had a gopher on the cover.

    Maybe my difficulty is because, while I haven’t been using the Internet for 35+ years, I have been using it for more than 15.

  11. Mark, my point is that in his Wolf Blitzer interview, Al Gore overstated the significance of his contribution to the creation of the Internet.

    I don’t imagine it was intentional (at least I hope not), but unfortunately for him this overshadows the contribution that he did make.

    Most tellingly, unlike the popular media of the time I didn’t even have to misquote Al Gore in order to make my point. Even though I quoted him scrupulously in this thread, and even supplied the context for the quote, people here thought that I must have somehow exaggerated what he said.

    Antinous, the fact that Al Gore has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize says more about the current state of the Nobel Awards Committee than it does about the current state of Al Gore.

  12. I have to tell you, that’s breathtakingly arrogant. And coming from someone as arrogant and imperious as me, that’s even worse.

  13. Antinous: Perhaps.

    But you should take into account the fact that leading climate scientist Dr. John R. Christy, as a senior member of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was also awarded the same Nobel Peace Prize as Al Gore.

    However, Dr. Christy refused his share of the Prize because he believes that it was awarded based on a misunderstanding of the science behind climate change.

    In light of this, I feel it would be arrogant (perhaps even breathtakingly so) to *not* question the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision.

  14. Well, I thought the prize was for forcing the world to acknowledge that there is a problem and to take steps to understand and alleviate it, not for being an amazing scientist?

  15. Unusual Suspect, you’re working really hard to manufacture a falsehood for Gore.

    As you pointed out, Gore said “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” And it’s true — he really did take the initiative in creating the Internet, and was in Congress when he did so. There’s nothing false in that claim.

    “Create” is a vaguer, more general term than “invent” (or “design” or “build” or “assemble” or “implement”), but you’re acting as if they’re perfect synonyms. And you’re doing it all for the sake of a stupid joke. (Has anyone else noticed that whenever someone follows a joke up with sorry, but I couldn’t resist the joke is never actually funny?)

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