Virulent Word of Mouse

October 29, 2009

The Internet has a birthday and turns 40

Filed under: Computer and Internet Humor,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 11:14 pm

National Public Radio has started a series on the history of the Internet. The reporter tried to go back and find the first Internet message ever sent.

He concluded it was sent on October 29th, 1969, between UCLA and SRI (Stanford Research Institute). Here is a link to the story.

In the process the reporter uncovered one trivial but amusing factoid, but also over-interpreted the events. In this post I want to explain why the factoid is amusing and why the report misinterpreted it.

The first Internet message

lkimpThere is one thing to recommend about this story. Leanord Kleinrock (and early pioneer) provides an exceptionally amusing apology for lacking the foresight to compose an memorable first message. He is sorry he did not think to have his assistants write something like “What hath God Wroth?”

Here is his quote: “We should have prepared a wonderful message. Certainly Samuel Morse did, when he prepared ‘What hath God wrought,’ a beautiful Biblical quotation. Or Alexander Graham Bell: ‘Come here, Watson. I need you.’ Or Armstrong up in the moon — ‘a giant leap for mankind.’ These guys were smart. They understood public relations. They had quotes ready for history.”

Nope. The first message was “lo.” You read that correctly. It was “lo.” As in “Lo, what light through yonder window breaks?”

If they had been quoting Romeo and Juliet, then Kleinrock would not have been lamenting 40 years later. Alas, they were not.

The story explains it well. Events were quite mundane, in fact. There was an attempt to login. The system crashed before all five letters for “login” could be typed and sent. Only the first two letters made it. Hence, the first message was “lo”.

The reporter did not speculate about what would have happened if the participants had actually tried to compose something poetic. I thought that imaginative game contains some possibilities.

For example, what if they had tried “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” If they had tried that, and had a system crash, then the first message would have been “on”, which almost seems appropriate for a computer.

This is a silly game if you think about it some more. If they had attempted to write “Watson, come here I need you” they would have gotten “Wa”, sort of like the sound of crying. That almost seems appropriate too since the system just crashed.

hal-400If they had attempted to write a line from a movie, such as “Hal, open the door” they would have gotten “Ha.” It would have come across as laughing. Laughing might appear a bit cavalier just prior to a system crash, but that would have been ok. After all, they were opening the door to further developments of the Internet.

Nope, they just got “lo”. Nothing silly. But, hey, sometimes life is like that. Actually, most of the time programming it like that. Why should the first Internet message have been any different?

Interpreting the first message

Back to the main point. I had only one problem with the report. The reporter imposed a retrospective bias on events four decades ago.

This is what I mean. We now understand how significant was this invention, but that does not mean the actors at the time understood it, appreciated it, or had even an inkling of it.

Indeed, there is enough to know. They did not have much of a clue of what would come next. The participants just did not have any idea what would come far off in the horizon.

This little “lo” moment is really a manufactured birthday. Nobody at the time saw it as the birth of something big. The label has been invented by observers far after the fact, and it is colored by the extraordinary growth that occurred later.

At the time the inventors were doing a scientific experiment, implementing a piece of frontier computing networking, and that was all.

In that light it is not difficult to understand why nobody composed any poetic message on this particular day. The reporter’s attempt to dramatize events directed attention away from the explanation.

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