This past week, just about every DC-based news outlet has picked up the Associated Press story that Arlington County is dedicating a plaque at 1400 Wilson Boulevard to commemorate the birthplace of the Internet-predecessor, the ARPANET. While there’s no question that DARPA, namesake of the network, was deeply and inextricably involved in the development of the network, can you really say that Arlington was its birthplace?
Part of this question is deeply philosophical: what exactly does it mean to invent something that spanned a continent, and then a globe? Are the wires the network? The machines that connect them? The people that wrote the software that the machines run? There’s not going to be as clean cut an answer here as you’d like, but let’s take the opportunity to explore the region’s involvement in the creation of the second greatest technical achievement of the 1960s, shall we?
Arlington County has bankrolled a pair of plaques for the DARPA headquarters that will commemorate the spot where they say that the ARPANet was invented, in the offices at 1400 Wilson Boulevard. While it’s certain that the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency underwrote the Internet, and did some of the planning for its implementation, but, like many government projects, once the specifications were set, they bid the job out to the highest bidder.
Much of the network design for the ARPANet was based around theory of packet switching, which would allow a message to be diced up into small parcels and transmitted in, or out of, order between nodes on a network. Paul Baran of the RAND Corporation had developed most of the theory for this network in California in the late 1950s, which would lead to further analysis of the subject by Leonard Kleinrock of the UCLA Computer Science department. Kleinrock and a team of programmers there came up with the protocols that would power the network powered by some specialized computers called Interface Message Processors (we know them as Routers today).
A company based in Cambridge, MA, just outside of Boston, and staffed by MIT professors and graduates called Bolt, Beranek and Newman won the bid to produce these new message routers for the government, and the first two were built for Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, and Kleinrock’s team at UCLA. Using telephone lines leased for the purpose, on October 29th, 1969, just months after man set foot on the Moon, Kleinrock’s team fired off the first login attempt between networked computers. It crashed. An hour later, they tried again, and were successful, marking the beginning of the ARPANet.
In the eyes of the engineer, one could argue the home of the Internet was Cambridge, where the routers were built, or Los Angeles or Palo Alto, where the engineers made those computers talk to each other for the very first time. In the eyes of the theorist, though, we’re back to ARPA, and the work of two interesting men: J.C.R. Licklider at ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, and his successor, Robert Taylor. The pair of them shepherded the grants associated around the ARPANet, and co-authored a paper the year before the successful first tests of the network called the Computer as a Communications Device (PDF). The paper’s most delicious and prescient notion of the network they sought to craft reads as follows:
What will on-line interactive communities be like? In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, some- times grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest. In each field, the overall community of interest will be large enough to support a comprehensive system of field-oriented programs and data.
Perhaps there is merit to this plaque yet.
Vision and coordination do contain value, especially when they are so very on the money with regard to results.
I discussed the plaque with Internet historian Dr. Janet Abbate of Virginia Tech, whose Inventing the Internet is widely respected for its treatment of the subject. I asked her thoughts about the recent news blitz lead by Arlington County’s board of supervisors, and the idea that Arlington would be the birthplace of the Internet, and she responded, “It wasn’t [Arlington] in terms of infrastructure (that would be either UCLA, site of the first node, or BBN, where the IMPs were built and tested), but it was in terms of money and “vision,” so I guess they have as good a claim as any. Arlington County as such had nothing to do with it, though.”
So, yes, while ARPANet has scads of history here in the area, Arlington is hardly the only place that can lay claim to that contentious “birthplace” title, and that it’s the municipality laying claim to the title makes me even more skeptical. Insofar as some of the technology was devised here, yes, Arlington is birthplace to the Internet, but that may be a dangerous path to walk down, especially when you have a five-sided building not too far to the South whose other inventions the county may not be so quick to take credit for.