Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Computer Nostalgia: the Birth of the Internet

Yes, like Al Gore, I was there at the birth of the Internet.  OK, maybe not the birth of the Internet, but I was there when the Internet was still in diapers and not playing nicely with other children.

Back in 1986 I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago. I was working in close collaboration with a postdoc, Adrian Melott (whom I mentioned in an earlier post). But Adrian was leaving Chicago to take a faculty job at the University of Kansas, and I started to panic about how we could finish up our joint project. Adrian pulled me aside and said, "Don't worry, Bob, they have this new thing called electronic mail, and it allows you to send messages over the computer." And it was amazing. You could send messages of unlimited length, for free, and have them arrive within a few minutes. Back then the only alternatives were long-distance phone calls (which cost real money, especially if you called on weekdays between the hours of 9 and 5), or writing a letter, which took several days to reach its destination, and a similar time for a response.

At that point the Internet really was the internets (plural) -- it resembled the early New York City subway system in that it was divided up into multiple networks. For instance, after I left Chicago, I took a job at Harvard, where we were on "bitnet." When I wanted to communicate with a friend at Xerox PARC, which was on "arpanet," I had to send a message to a portal in Madison, where the two networks intersected. I could watch the message as it traced its way through each computer on the East Coast, ultimately reaching Madison and disappearing down a rabbit hole, presumably to reemerge in Palo Alto.

But let me get back to 1986. I became an instant electronic mail addict (nobody called it email back then), so I phoned my parents to let them know about my exciting new discovery.  The conversation with my mother went something like this:

Me: "Hey, they have this new thing called electronic mail, and it lets you send messages to someone else over the computer.  It gets there almost right away, and it's free. It's really cool! I bet someday everyone's gonna have it."

My mother: "Oh Bob, don't be ridiculous."

Me: "Yeah, I guess you're right."


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