The story behind the birth of the internet on the third floor of Boelter Hall

By Kate Nucci

Timeline

Oct. 29, 1969 marked the first data transmission relayed across a computer network by researchers working under Leonard Kleinrock in Boelter Hall. But when was the internet first conceptualized, and how did it get to what it is today?

Scroll and click on a year below to see what happened with the Internet that year.

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1990s

Leonard Kleinrock, a computer science professor, sat in his office in the basement of Boelter Hall, working late. It was past 10 p.m. on Oct. 27, 1969.

Down the hall, one of his graduate students, Charley Kline, was also still up. Kline said he preferred working at night. During the day, the noise of the other researchers and the massive computer fans from the device in front of him and from beneath the floor made focusing difficult.

Kleinrock dropped by to check on Kline a few minutes later.

Two months earlier, Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a computer company, had airlifted in the world’s first internet router, built to the specifications provided by Kleinrock’s team. Stanford had received one at the beginning of October. Kline would be attempting to log onto the computer of Bill Duvall, a Stanford Research Institute computer scientist, using a simple computer command: typing “LOGIN” onto the welcome screen. 

Kline had Duvall on the telephone, using the technology they intended to displace to see if their experiment worked, Kleinrock said.

Kline typed the first letter, “L.” Duvall received it.

Kline typed the “O.” Duvall received it.

Kline typed the “G,” and Duvall’s computer crashed.

“Oh, I didn’t get it,” Duvall said. “Something seems to be wrong. Let me call you back.”

It was just another step in the right direction of the aim of their research, Kline and Kleinrock thought at the time. The cascading implications that would follow wouldn’t become clear to them for another decade.

“The important thing to remember here is that it wasn’t our computer that crashed, it wasn’t our (router), it wasn’t the other (router),” said Kleinrock, considered one of the founders of the internet. “It was Stanford’s computer.”

A new technological era

A photograph of a piece of lined paper which details the customer service logs of the laboratory.
UCLA graduate student Charley Kline logged the first data transmission ever sent between two computers with different programming. There were no photographs or audio recordings of the event, so the log is the only proof the transmission worked, Kline said. (Courtesy of UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering)
A photograph of Leonard Kleinrock wearing a yellow dress shirt and navy blazer standing in front of a light green wall. The wall features framed photographs of Kleinrock in the 1960s and the research group he worked in.
(Xuxin Zhang/Daily Bruin)
A photograph of Leonard Kleinrock in the 1960s wearing a short-sleeved yellow turtleneck. He is looking off-camera and sitting in front of a metal bookshelf.
Leonard Kleinrock received his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, completing his coursework in 1963. He then moved to Los Angeles to work as a professor at UCLA where, in 1967, the Advanced Research Projects Agency tapped him to lead research on its new ARPANET program. (Courtesy of UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering)

Leonard Kleinrock said he was born to be an engineer. By the time he was 6 he had built a crystal radio out of household objects.

He was fascinated with engineering. It was a form of magic, he said.

By the 1960s Kleinrock was at MIT, approaching completion of his master’s degree in electrical engineering. At that point, he nearly left in academia – he had a wife and a young child, and he was ready to start work, Kleinrock said. It took his professors badgering him repeatedly for him to agree, he said.

“They really twisted my arm until I did,” Kleinrock said.

So if he was going to get his doctorate, it was going to be something more impactful and creative. His classmates were all working on small concepts of theory or extensions to current technology. Kleinrock said; they were only small, incremental pieces of progress, as he called them.

Kleinrock didn’t want to write his dissertation on the telephone lines – he wanted to work on a new system of transmitting data.

He worked in MIT’s computer lab. He thought there should be a way to connect the computers to each other – to let them talk to each other.

At the time, the most advanced communications technology was the telephone. Whenever two people make a phone call, the line is open and used until they hang up, said George Varghese, a UCLA computer science professor who is researching how to improve the internet. It was an inefficient system because only one person speaks, but two people take up bandwidth.

In the ’60s, the ’50s and ’60s, there were things that people hoped can be done, but they were considered such huge projects (that) no company would consider doing them on their own, like the space program, like the ARPANET.”

- Kline

Instead, Kleinrock said, information could be passed along circuits in small packages. These packages would shoot small bits of data from one computer to the next.

Kleinrock wasn’t the only person to develop the theory. Paul Baran, at RAND Corporation, and Dan Davies, a U.K. computer scientists, each reached the concept of packaging data at around the same time.

Kleinrock published his dissertation, which proved the mathematical theory behind packaging data, in 1959. In 1963, he took a job at UCLA, moving into the office on the third floor of Boelter Hall that he still uses today.

Kleinrock wanted to work on new, exciting research. The federal government was looking for exactly that.

ARPANET

In 1957, a few years prior to Kleinrock’s work, Sputnik launched and the space race began. By early 1958 President Dwight Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA.

ARPA was a military-funded program, although its researchers would not work on technology for military use. ARPA offered high-risk, high-reward contracts to researchers to essentially do what they chose with, Kleinrock said.

“That kind of flexibility led to some wonderful results across the country,” Kleinrock said.

A photograph of four men standing inside a room full of large computers. Three of the men are talking to each other and the fourth is standing to the left, looking at a sheet of paper on a metallic surface. Behind the men is a machine called the “Interface Messaging Processor,” a small desktop computer without a monitor.
Boelter Hall 3422 was designed specifically for computers. It had fans in the floor to prevent the large computers from overheating, Kline said. The Interface Messaging Processor (right) itself was an altered minicomputer, designed by Kleinrock’s team and built by the company Bolt, Beranek and Newman. (Courtesy of UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering)
A photograph of Leonard Kleinrock holding a paper notebook. Only Kleinrock’s lower half is visible as the notebook is in the foreground of the photo. The title page of the notebook reads “Computer Log” which someone crossed out and hand-wrote “IMP Log” over it.
Computer logs were common in the 1960s, said Kline, the graduate student who sent the transmission. To create the IMP log, the team crossed out “COMPUTER” and short-handed in “IMP.” (Xuxin Zhang/Daily Bruin)

Because most of the money funding research came from the government, provided freely to universities and researchers, scientific innovation was driven by curiosity, not profit, he said.

“In the 60s, the 50s, and 60s, there were things that people hoped can be done, but they were considered such huge projects (that) no company would consider doing them on their own, like the space program, like the ARPANET,” Kline said. “On the other hand, today, these are companies like SpaceX and we can go to the moon, we can go to Mars and can raise the money to do it.

Nowadays, money is more difficult to come by, Kleinrock said, hindering innovation in the public sector – although the feeling of the era may be coming back. But for a long time the scope of research in recent years has been more narrow, safer and more competitive, he thinks.

“It went pretty poorly for a long time,” Kleinrock said. “And you have far more faculty members competing for the small amount of money for the problems get smaller and narrower and highly competitive, as opposed to collaborative and cooperative. And so you're getting enormous amounts of papers published for little tiny results, which is exactly what I did not want to do with my dissertation.”

To facilitate collaboration and increase the pace of among its various projects, ARPA decided in 1957 that it needed a way to allow researchers for its projects across the country to connect with each other. It needed a network. It developed a new project, which it called ARPANET.

The head of the ARPANET, Larry Rogers, was a former fellow student of MIT. Because Kleinrock had the expertise, UCLA was chosen to be the first node in a new system to transmit data

The first router and the first message

Kleinrock built a team of 20 to 30 people. They developed the specifications for a router that could connect with a computer and ARPANET held a bidding war to choose a builder – AT&T and IBM both declined to participate, claiming it would never work.

Only 12 companies put in a bid. In the end, a contract to build four routers was awarded to the company Bolt, Beranek and Newman. To build those routers they altered minicomputers, creating what they called at the time Information Messaging Processors, or IMPs.

During Labor Day weekend in 1969, BBN airlifted their first router to UCLA, a few days early, to great general excitement, Kleinrock said. As administrators, company representatives, students and researchers crowded into the lab, one of Kleinrock’s students successfully connected the computer to the IMP.

A black-and-white photograph of a forklift in front of a brick building. It is lifting a large machine onto the third floor, where a man is helping to bring the machine onto the floor.
Workers lifted the IMP into Kleinrock’s lab on the third floor of Boelter Hall. The IMP, built by BBN, arrived at UCLA by airlift during Labor Day weekend 1969, several days ahead of schedule. The Stanford Research Institute would receive one a month later. University of California, Santa Barbara would receive one Nov. 1, and the University of Utah on Dec. 1. (Courtesy of UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering)
A photograph of an open machine. Inside the machine are various metallic boxes. One reads “Power distribution unit.” Another has multi-colored wires leaving it.
(Courtesy of UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering)
A photograph of Leonard Kleinrock mid-speech, opening the machine from the previous image. It stands taller than him. They are in front of light green walls.
The first router in history. (Xuxin Zhang/Daily Bruin)

On the other hand, when Stanford connected a computer to its own router a few months later, and Charley Kline wrote to Bill Duvall across the internet for the first time, there was nobody watching but Kline, Duvall and Kleinrock.

At the time, Kline considered it just another step in a long research process.

"It was like the excitement you feel when you level up in a video game," Kline said.

The importance of the event went unrecognized for decades, even by UCLA. In the 1980s, UCLA attempted to throw out the original IMP to save space, so Kleinrock stole it, despite it being taller than an average person, and hid it in a small unused office.

Kleinrock asked the administration, his colleagues, even the mayor to recognize the importance of the accomplishment.

“(In LAX) there’s a big sign says, ‘Welcome to LA, home of the 1984 Olympics,’ Kleinrock said. “So (I said) how about a sign that says birthplace of the internet? Never happened, probably won't happen. But there was no appreciation.”

A photograph of Leonard Kleinrock pointing to a plaque on a light green wall which reads “IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing.” The subtitle is “Birthplace of the Internet, 1969.”
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers awarded Kleinrock’s lab its “Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing” plaque in 2009. The plaque marks important locations in the development of important technologies, including the birthplace of the telegraph and the breaking of the German enigma code during World War II. (Xuxin Zhang/Daily Bruin)

After "lo"

Meanwhile, the new internet’s capabilities were continuing to grow as more people entered the field.

UCLA received its IMP on Aug. 31, 1969. Stanford received its Oct. 1, UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 1 and the University of Utah on Dec. 1, Kline said. Each node was connected with each other node, forming the first computer network to be sustained between computers that ran on different programs.

On Nov. 21, the first permanent link between two computers running on different programs was established between UCLA and Stanford. By Dec. 5, all four computers were part of a network.

From there, more universities and government agencies began to join the ARPANET. By 1974 the network had 62 connections.

Kleinrock’s team split up. Several took their own ARPANET money and built protocols to standardize the ways different programs would connect with each other, creating the first internet protocols.

A picture dated July 1970 featuring Professor Kleinrock, a man wearing a tie, short sleeve button up shirt, and slacks. He is lecturing in front of a projector screen and a whiteboard with mathematical equations written on it.
Kleinrock introduced the concept of data packaging in his thesis, published in 1961 as a paper and as a book in 1963. He is one of three computer scientists credited with developing package theory, along with Paul Baran, a researcher at RAND Corporation, and Donald Davies, a Welsh computer scientist at the British National Physical Laboratory. (Courtesy of UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering)
A photograph of various books, notebooks, and papers scattered on a wooden table. One green book reads “Queuing Systems: Volume 1: Theory” and is authored by Leonard Kleinrock. Another blue book lies on top of it, also by Kleinrock. To the right are papers featuring electronic diagrams and a notebook reading “Resource Sharing Computer Networks.” To the right of those is the “IMP Log” notebook featured earlier.
Kleinrock’s thesis is visible to the left and the IMP log is at the top right. (Courtesy of UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering)

The internet hadn’t been something planned, like the moonwalk or the telephone had been, Kleinrock said.

So it grew organically, individually, part-by part, Varghese said.

“We did not have a good message prepared,” Kleinrock said. “Not like Alexander Graham Bell’s ‘Come here Mr. Watson, I want to see you,’ or Neil Armstrong ‘giant leap for mankind.’”

- Kleinrock

“(In the beginning) we were all well behaved and friendly, I knew everybody,” Kleinrock said. “And so, and you know everybody behaved well there was no profit motive. Nobody try to patent, or gain access to intellectual property rights.”

By the 1980s, a darker side of the internet began to emerge, Varghese said. The original network programmers hadn’t put in place any protocols to authenticate users, so anybody could fake their identity on the internet. Security hadn’t been built in, Varghese said.

In 1981, Vint Cerf a former student of Kleinrock’s, developed the IP address system. Around then, corporations began to take a greater interest in the technology, Vaghese said.

“As soon as it became commercial people the bad guys are thinking hey, I can send a message pretending to be (anybody) right on the internet and nobody can tell because it's just a bunch of numbers, and there was no attention to security, you know, built in, and retrofit security is very hard,” Varghese said.

Kleinrock correctly predicted in 1969 that the internet would see increasing application in the coming years. But he didn’t predict the rise and scope of its problems – fake news, cybercrime, radicalization – that would come along, too.

Some of it, at least, could have been solved earlier in the process, Kleinrock said.

“We could have turned on those (security) capabilities slowly and tried to prevent some of the abuses,” Kleinrock said. “Not all, but some.”

Kleinrock’s next project is coming up the day after the 50th anniversary of the internet – his new lab, just down the hall from the old one, is opening, he said. He said he and his graduate and undergraduate researchers plan to study everything to do with connectivity on the internet.

“The fact that it's just local should be inspiring to UCLA students, because they could – any of them could have been be part of some revolution like this,” Varghese said.

They hadn’t been prepared for the internet. But in just one of many happy accidents, the first word to be sent across the internet turned out to be fitting after all, Kleinrock said.

“We did not have a good message prepared,” Kleinrock said. “Not like Alexander Graham Bell’s “Come here Mr. Watson, I want to see you,” or Neil Armstrong “giant leap for mankind.” Those guys understood your world of media and publicity and the present all the best. But the message we ended up sending by accident was amazingly succinct two letters are static and powerful.”

“Lo,” Kleinrock said, just like “lo and behold.”

Photograph of Leonard Kleinrock, a man wearing glasses, a yellow dress shirt, and a navy blazer, working at his laptop. He is in an office with awards hung on the wall behind him.
Kleinrock intends to continue his research into connectivity on the internet in a new lab, right down the hall from his old lab. (Xuxin Zhang/Daily Bruin)