Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet. Vol. 1 - Networking the Nerds (1998)

by Robert X. Cringely

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Documentary Description

Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (1998) is a three-hour documentary film written and hosted by Mark Stephens under the pseudonym Robert X. Cringely and produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting for PBS. This three-part sequel to the well-received Triumph of the Nerds, recaptures the same trendy style so effectively used by Robert Cringely.  A sequel to Triumph of the Nerds, Nerds 2.0.1 documents the development of ARPANET, the Internet, the World Wide Web and the dot-com bubble of the mid- and late-1990s. It was broadcast two years prior to the collapse of the dot-com bubble.

Vol. 1 - Networking the Nerds explores the origins of the World Wide Web as Cringley mixes interviews with features that manage to engage both the technically inclined and the computer-naïve viewers. His knowledge of the industry is invaluable for drawing out interesting commentary from the top players of the web. This episode reveals the earliest days of the web when it was primarily used by university personnel. (


Invention is rarely the isolated product of a lone scientist or engineer. Instead, every significant technology in the modern world is the product of a long history of numerous people and events. One of our most modern inventions, the Internet, is itself the result of decades of work and innovation by thousands of people who may have never dreamed of the possibility or potential of a global network.

One interesting and influential ancestor in the history of the Internet is radar. Hundreds of the best scientists and engineers in Britain and the U.S. worked during World War Two to develop radar systems to help them to defeat the Axis powers. Electronics technology was pushed to new heights to make the signals stronger, and early computing machines were developed to process the complex radar messages.

On the radar scope

In the 50's and 60's, the Cold War spurred further research in radar and computers . The U.S. government feared that the Russians were pushing ahead of the west in science and technology, and the launch of the Russian Sputnik symbolized a new era and a new frontier. A call to arms swelled university campuses with budding scientists and engineers ready to burn their slide rules and retake the lead in technology from the Communists.

One of the ironies of history is that war often lifts innovation to a higher level, and many beneficial inventions have roots in warfare. During World War Two, scientists and engineers on both sides of the battle lines advanced technology at a tremendous rate. In particular, the development of radar during and after the war was a catalyst for some of the technologies later incorporated into the Internet. One of the pioneers in radar, Vennevar Bush, was also the originator of an idea that would later evolve into the World Wide Web.

Vennevar Bush When the U.S. officially entered the war, Bush served as the top advisor to President Roosevelt on matters of technology in the war. He managed all the government's scientists, including the Manhattan Project. Even with this great responsibility, he also found time to keep up on his own research, including a machine intended to change the way people store and retrieve books, records, and notes. He called this machine a memex, because its purpose was to augment human memory.

Bush theorized that people didn't think well in the linear structures of alphabetic or numeric indexes, but instead in associative connections. Therefore, the memex would index everything with associative links and pieces of information that could be retrieved through paths of logical connections. He described the memex as a desk and camera that could record anything a user wrote and then link it to other pieces of information indexed in its storage space.

No memex machine was ever built, but Bush described his idea in an article for Atlantic Monthly titled "As We Think", published near the end of the war in 1945. It was obviously a revolutionary idea, but few people could grasp its potential impact. In the Philippines, a young Navy Radar Technician named Doug Engelbart picked up a copy of Atlantic Monthly at the Red Cross and became an early advocate for Bush's idea.

The cold war heats up

The U.S. government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research and it was a golden age for R&D around the country. New federal agencies, such as NASA and ARPA, were created to distribute the research money around . MIT especially benefited from the Cold War, building new labs and hiring the best nerds in the country to work in them. High-tech companies sprang up around MIT, staffed with MIT graduates. One of these companies, Bolt, Barenek and Newman (BBN), would take the lead in developing the ARPAnet, the forerunner to the Internet.

In 1957, the Russians launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The United States was near hysterics thinking of that little, metal ball orbiting the globe overhead. The U.S. didn't want the Russians to own Sputnik outer space without a fight, so the old soldier, President Eisenhower, called up some new troops, the nation's scientists and engineers, to battle in the Cold War.

Above losing a space-race, the biggest fear for the world in the 1950's was the threat of a nuclear war. Dropping atomic bombs on Japan demonstrated the incredibly destructive power of nuclear weapons, and both sides had the bomb now. While some research centers worked on making weapons even more destructive, other researchers studied how to survive an atomic war. Protecting the nation's modes of communication was considered one of the most critical priorities.

Scientists at the RAND Corporation, a think-tank devoted to national defense, studied several possibilities. One of their scientists, Paul Baran, theorized that a decentralized network with several possible routes between any two points could keep the channels open for communication. If a few of the routes in the network were destroyed in a nuclear attack, messages would be rerouted automatically. In order to do this, though, he realized that the messages would need to be split up and sent as separate blocks. If the message was cut up into blocks, each could travel along any route that connected the source to the destination and at least part of the message would make it through.

In 1965, Baran found funding from the Air Force, but the project was plagued with bureaucratic problems. Len Kleinrock Baran was afraid that the project was doomed to fail because of the people put in charge of it, so he withdrew his request because he feared a failure would ruin any future prospects. He gave up on the idea, but he didn't know that other engineers were already working on the same idea.

Earlier in 1961, Leonard Kleinrock wrote his Ph.D. thesis at MIT on a similar block switching idea. Also, across the Atlantic in Britain, Donald Watts Davies was working on a block-switching scheme for the British National Physical Laboratory (NPL). However, Davies had a different name for it; he called the blocks "packets."


The ARPAnet began as a government program thought up in the halls of the Pentagon. BBN was paid to build the connecting hardware and software, and several universities funded by ARPA were chosen to test the network. In 1969, only four computers were connected to the ARPAnet, but it grew and advances in computer technology made it faster and easier to use. Better networking protocols and applications were developed, especially email, and more people were convinced that it was going to be a success.

Eisenhower allotted over a billion dollars for U.S. research and development centers, including the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) located in the new Pentagon building. The success of the Manhattan Project also attracted money toward research in particle physics, including projects like the new Stanford Linear Accelerator.

Accelerators were big machines a country could brag about, and the Cold War foes liked to show them off. Not wanting to fall behind the super-powers, several European countries collaborated and built the biggest of them all at the new Counseil European pour la Recherche Nucleaire, or CERN. The same research center where the World Wide Web would be invented forty years later.

All this building was wonderful for the economies devastated from the war, but the scars of international conflict were still fresh in their minds. The United Nations was created as a grand experiment in preventing another global war. New York was picked to host the United Nations, and construction began on a UN Building for the hundreds of UN ambassadors and their staff.

Three acoustic engineers, Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, formed a partnership to work as consultants on the new UN Building. Their new company, BBN, was headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts near the engineers' alma mater, MIT. From there they recruited students from MIT and Harvard. BBN was soon known as the "third university in Cambridge."


The Cold War was very profitable for private and university research centers. In particular, MIT was a hotbed for research funded by the military. In 1951, they opened Lincoln Lab, devoted to developing technology for air defense, especially radar systems.

One of the biggest radar projects at MIT was Whirlwind, an early application of computers to coordinate and monitor a collection of radars watching for Russian bombers flying over the north pole. Several staff and graduate students (including Frank Heart) worked on a computer system that would alert a central monitoring station when something showed up on the radar. It was one of the first uses of computer networking and it pushed the technology to new levels.


In the 1950s, the new field of computer science was introduced on university campuses around the country. MIT was one of the early leaders in the field, and researcher at MIT's Lincoln Lab had access to several mainframe computers. Lincoln Lab also built their own computers including the TX-0 (the first transistorized computer, thus the "T") and TX-2. Both of the TX computers were built by two MIT technicians, Ken Olsen (the founder of Digital Systems) and Wesley Clark.

An MIT psychoacoustrician named J.C.R. Licklider took and immediate and intense interest in computer after Clark demonstrated the TX-0 to him. J.C.R. Licklider Licklider, called "Lick" by his friends and fellow researchers, applied his background in psychology to research how people interacted with computers, and he became known as an expert in human-computer interaction. People at ARPA took notice and offered Licklider the job of director for their new Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). He accepted the position as the founding director and continued his research in human-computer interaction.

In 1960, Licklider wrote a landmark article titled "Man-Computer Symbiosis". In his article Licklider looked beyond the conventional idea that computers were mere calculators. He saw a relationship with computers where people "will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluation." The computer would take care of the tedious work and allow us to do the important stuff.

Intergalactic Network

In 1962, Jack Ruina, the director of ARPA, offered Licklider the chance to start ARPA's new behavioral science division, and because Licklider was interested in computer science, the new Information Processing Techniques Office as well. It was an opportunity for Licklider to blend his background in psychology and his interest in computers together.

At that time, using one of the world's few computers meant either submitting a "batch job" and waiting up to a day for the results, or logging into a terminal connected to a time-sharing computer. People on time-sharing terminals used the same computer, but it was fast enough to make it appear like they had the computer's complete attention.

Licklider observed how the researchers and students at the Lincoln Lab communicated with each other on time-sharing computers. He theorized that computers augmented human thinking by increasing their ability to communicate. If the whole world, he proposed, could connect through a "intergalactic network" they could share ideas and collaborate in an integrated unit. However, he had no idea how to create this global network.

The First Link

Doug EngelbartAs director of IPTO, Licklider could fund others to find out how to create an Intergalactic Network. One project he funded in 1963 was the "Augmentation Research Center," headed by Doug Engelbart out at Stanford.

After World War Two, Engelbart had returned to school and completed his Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering at Oregon State University. He worked for NACA (later renamed NASA) at the Ames Laboratory for three years, but his fascination for computers grew and he went back to graduate school to study the new field of computer science.

After earning a Ph.D., he went to work at the Stanford Research Institute designing and building computer components. Bush's article still influenced Engelbart's work, and Englebart had some ideas on how to build an equivalent machine using computers. After a few years at SRI, he had enough experience and reputation to attract funding for his own laboratory. Besides Licklider, Engelbart also found some funding from of a young project engineer at NASA, Robert Taylor.

At the Augmentation Research Center, Engelbart was developing a new way of computing and he had to invent new tools to make it work. Many of his inventions were very innovative, including the mouse pointing device and windows on a computer display. He also created an early hypertext system called NLS, but it wasn't widely used. The world wasn't ready for hypertext.


In 1965, the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) hosted its 20th annual conference. One of the speakers at the event was 28 year old Theodore Nelson giving a presentation titled "A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate." This was the first time he described his interconnected "docuverse" to the scientific community, and his audience were some of the first to hear the word "hypertext."

Ted Nelson While a Master's student studying sociology at Harvard, Nelson took a computer science course and discovered an exciting new world. He imagined innovative applications for the computer, including word processors and an interconnected, nonsequential, dynamic collection of documents and multimedia. Nelson's "docuverse" was similar to the future World Wide Web, but it was on a grander scale. Hyper-links pulled portions of documents and multimedia components across the network, and copyrights were managed to protect the intellectual property of contributors.

It was a revolutionary idea, and it was given the fantastic name of "Xanadu". However, it was never realized. Although several believers poured millions of dollars into the project, including John Walker (the founder of AutoDesk), Ted Nelson never produced a complete working model of Xanadu.

In the later 1960s, Nelson continued to work on his ideas and collaborated with Andries van Dam at Brown University to design and build a hypertext editing system they descriptively named Hypertext Editing System or HES. IBM paid for the project, and the system was programmed on an IBM mainframe and graphic display. When it was finished, IBM sold the system to NASA to produce documentation at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

Twenty Minute Pitch

Bob TaylorEarly in the space-race, NASA was paying for a lot of research and it employed thousands at its growing research centers. Robert Taylor, a young scientist who studied psychoacoustics and mathematics at the University of Texas, worked for NASA as a research administrator in the early 1960's. After a few years at NASA, he was hired by Ivan Sutherland, the second director of IPTO, in 1965 to work at ARPA. Only one year later, Taylor succeeded Sutherland as director and managed all the computer projects funded by ARPA.

From the terminal room next to his Pentagon office, Bob Taylor had a direct connection to several of the ARPA-funded computers around the country. Each terminal was connected to a single computer and Taylor needed to use a different login sequence and different commands on each mainframe. In 1966, it was the leading edge of computer networking, but Taylor was tired of changing seats and instructions every time he needed to communicate with another computer.

He composed an idea and walked to his boss's office, Charles Herzfeld, and gave him the pitch. Taylor explained the problem and described a vague solution about networking different computers together. Herzfeld liked the idea and said Taylor had one million dollars to make the idea work. When Taylor looked at his watch he noted that it only took twenty minutes to get the project funded.

One of the sayings at ARPA was "why don't we rely on the computer industry to do that?" instead of the government. So, Bob Taylor started writing a Request for Proposals titled "Cooperative Network of Time-Sharing Computers." He described the general idea, but he needed some help figuring out what they were asking contractors to do, exactly. The best person he knew who could help him was Larry Roberts, who was working at MIT's Lincoln Lab networking computers like the TX-2. Roberts had just built and tested the first transcontinental network between two computers, so he had as much experience as anyone in long-distance networks.

Larry Roberts At first, Roberts had no interest in leaving MIT, but Taylor wouldn't take no for an answer. Since he was in charge of funding over half of the research at Lincoln Lab, he had some clout there. After over a year of asking, Charles Herzfeld called Roberts' boss and strongly suggested he help Roberts decide to take the job. The director of Lincoln Lab called Roberts into his office and made the suggestion that the position at ARPA might be a good career choice at that time. Roberts moved to ARPA in 1966 and began drafting the Request for Proposals that ARPA would send out to potential contractors.

At the next annual conference of ARPA-funded university projects, Roberts organized a meeting to talk about the project. Two important parts of the network were decided: that the network traffic between computers would be broken up into blocks (a packet-switched network), and that a separate computer would act as a gateway to the network for each node. This computer, named an Interface Message Processor (IMP), would be connected to the network and to a mainframe at the site. All the nodes would have nearly identical IMPs, creating a standard interface for the network between nodes.

Request for Proposals

Larry Roberts finished writing the Request for Proposals and sent it to 140 potential contractors in the summer of 1968. After a few months, about twelve came back to ARPA, including BBN's proposal. Two of the largest computer companies, IBM and Control Data Corporation (CDC), declined to make a bid, confident that packet-switching was an unworthy endeavor.

Roberts cut the number he considered appropriate down to four, including BBN and Raytheon. Raytheon looked like the early leader in the competition for the contract. They had more resources than BBN and they claimed they could make the network faster than the proposal required. However, BBN made the same claim and they supplied the details on how they were going to do it. BBN had spent several months and over $100,000 writing the proposal and Roberts felt BBN's proposal was a better plan.

BBN received word that they won the contract, and they were congratulated via telegram by Massachusetts' Senator Edward Kennedy for the winning the contract to build an "Interfaith Message Processor."

On the first day of 1969, Frank Heart collected his team together and started working on designing and programming the IMP. They chose the Honeywell DDP-516 for the computer they would modify into the IMP. The DDP-516 was one of the most powerful minicomputers on the market, and Heart liked it because it was built to military specifications - reinforced body and i-bolts on top.

The team's primary members included programmers Will Crowther and Dave Walden, BBN's star debugger Bernie Cosell, and Severo Ornstein, the geologist turned computer hardware specialist. Bob Kahn volunteered to write a specification to send to the participating centers detailing how to connect their computers to the IMP. They had about eight months to deliver the first IMP to UCLA on Labor Day.

Frank Heart Crowther and Walden spent several months writing code to send and receive packets over the network. They had to write the code in assembly language (what a computer can understand) and everything had to fit into the Honeywell's 12k of memory. To make the process more efficient, they wrote an assembler on BBN's PDP computer and transfered the compiled application via paper tape to a prototype Honeywell for testing each version.

When the first modified IMP (IMP-0) was delivered to BBN, Ben Barker (the young engineer assigned to testing it) discovered that the modifications were all wrong. In the 1960's changing the computer's configuration meant unwrapping and wrapping hundreds of tight bundles of wires. Barker spent a few months of long days reconfiguring the Honeywell.

IMP-1 was delivered to BBN just two weeks before Labor Day. They had sent instructions on the changes Barker made to the first IMP to Honeywell and they expected everything to work this time. However, when Barker powered the Honeywell up, nothing worked. He opened it up and discovered the same configuration the first IMP started with. However, this time he had detailed instructions on what to do, and he started working right away. He finished in just a few days, but he found a new problem.

When they tested the IMP it would consistently work for a while and then crash for no apparent reason. Most of the time it would go a day or two between crashes, but the IMP was supposed to work all the time or the ARPAnet wouldn't be practical. After a few days, Barker was convinced it was a synchronizer problem, an occasional mistiming in the CPU. It was one of the worst problems for a computer, and one of the hardest to fix. Heart had already arranged to have it shipped, so Barker and Ornstein raced against the clock to fix the problem.

Did You Get the "L"?

When planning began for the IMPs, four university research centers were chosen for the initial test sites. The decision on which university received an IMP was based on the specialties of each research center. Len Kleinrock, at UCLA, was one of the leading experts on packet-switching networks, so he would receive the first IMP and test the network as it was built and used. The second IMP would go to Stanford, where Doug Engelbart would manage the Network Information Center (NIC) providing a network home for ARPAnet documentation. Sutherland (the second director of IPTO), was researching computer graphics at the University of Utah, so the third IMP would go there. The fourth IMP would go to the University of California at Santa Barbara where research was conducted on interactive computer graphics.

Len KleinrockLen Kleinrock's graduate students had found out about the problems BBN was having with the IMP, so they guessed that BBN would need to set the date back and give them more time to finish programming the software interface. However, on August 29th, the day before Labor Day, the IMP was delivered to the Stanford shipping dock as planned. Steve Crocker, the graduate student responsible for the host-to-IMP software, heard the news two days earlier and was a little surprised. He spent all night finishing the interface for the Sigma 7 mainframe.

On Labor Day, the IMP was carted up to Kleinrock's lab and connected to a power source by a BBN engineer. When it was powered up, it started working where it had left off back in Cambridge. Unlike the temporary memory used in today's computers, the IMP used core memory that didn't forget anything when it was powered off. When they connected the Sigma 7 to the IMP, the mainframe and the IMP communicated with each other just as planned.

Logging In

A month later, the second IMP was installed at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). They had a SDS-940 mainframe computer connected to the IMP, so a different interface was written by the graduate students at Stanford. When it was working they were ready to test the first connection in the ARPANET, so they got on the phone with UCLA and coordinated the login.

"Did you get the L?" Charlie Klein, an undergraduate at UCLA, asked. "Yes," came the answer from Stanford. "Did you get the O?" asked UCLA. "Yes," answered Stanford. When Klein typed 'G' another first occurred - the network crashed.

@ Work

After the first IMPs were installed, including one at BBN, everyone was experimenting with doing things on the ARPAnet. Kleinrock and his students kept measuring its usage and occasionally pushed it to the breaking point to check for weaknesses. Researchers and students (including Bob Metcalfe) found several creative uses for the network, but Kleinrock's measurements indicated that the traffic didn't come close to filling the network's capacity. Something considered a frill would change that.

Ray Tomlinson Although initially looked upon as something improper for the ARPAnet, electronic mail (email) was the first big hit on the network. People could send messages to other people on a time-sharing computer before, but now the researchers wanted to send messages between computers on the ARPAnet. Ray Tomlinson, an engineer at BBN, wrote the first email reader and writer for the ARPANET. He kept his program a secret and just sent a message to himself to test it. However, his secret soon got out and email was quickly passing across the ARPAnet. Kleinrock reported that email took up more of the network's capacity than any other application.

When writing his email applications, one of the design problems Tomlinson had to tackle was how to address users on different computers. On a single computer, people could just send a message to a particular user name. But on the ARPAnet, there had to be a way to signify which computer computer hosted the account. Tomlinson decided to combine the account name with the computer name into a single address.

He looked at his keyboard for a single character to delimit the two names. One particular character made a lot of sense to him, because it wasn't used in proper names and the symbol meant "at". They character was the "@" symbol. Unfortunately, his choice for the most important character in Internet email addresses netted him zero profit.

The Big Demo

After several more universities linked their computers to the ARPAnet, Larry Roberts, now director of IPTO, wanted to demonstrate the abilities of the network to other research centers funded by ARPA and other people in the young field of computer networking. He assigned Bob Kahn at BBN to organize the event and arrange for demonstrations showing off the potential of the network. Kahn spent the year getting people and equipment ready for the event to be held at the Hilton in Washington, D.C..

Bob Metcalfe had written a short guide to all the exhibits, but everything was so new that many people couldn't understand or believe some of the demonstrations. They watched demonstrators logging into computers across the country, running a program there, and then sending the output back to the Hilton. Almost everyone was very impressed.

AT&T, one of the early and strongest skeptics of packet-switching, attended assuming they would witness the failure of a pipe dream. Metcalfe, still a graduate student, volunteered to show them around and demonstrate a working ARPAnet. However, the demonstrator's nightmare occurred - the network crashed. It was the only time during the conference that it failed, but the AT&T businessmen took it as evidence that packet-switching was doomed.

Surfing the Net

Norm Abramson, a professor of engineering at Stanford, had a personal interest in Hawaii. It was surfing. He was an avid surfer and after a visit to Hawaii in 1970, he inquired at the University of Hawaii if they were interested in hiring a professor of engineering. Within a year he was working at the University and surfing on the beaches in Hawaii.

Abramson immediately started working on a radio-based data communications system to connect the Hawaiian islands together, and he got Larry Roberts to fund the project. Abramson's team of engineers and graduate students eventually built the first wireless packet-switched network, and in true Hawaiian style, they named it ALOHAnet.

Abramson then managed to get a Terminal IMP from Larry Roberts in early 1971 and connected the ALOHAnet to the ARPAnet on the mainland. It was the first time another big network was connected to the ARPAnet.


At about the same time, the weaknesses of the Network Control Protocol (NCP) were becoming more apparent. In 1970, Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf ran an experiment from UCLA to see if they could overload the network under high but acceptable network traffic. Kahn had warned the engineers at BBN when they were building the IMPs, but Frank Heart thought the NCP was more than adequate for the amount of traffic they expected. However, the ARPAnet was getting more traffic than predicted.

Vint Cerf While waiting for a meeting one day, Vint Cerf started daydreaming about a new protocol that would improve the efficiency of the network and allow different networks to connect together into one big network - an Internet. He jotted down some notes and then met with Bob Kahn to work out the details. Together they came up with a protocol that would include error detection, packaging, and routing. They called it Transmission Control Protocol, but later split off part of it and called that part Internet Protocol. Together the acronym became TCP/IP.

TCP/IP was a necessary step in the evolution of the Internet. The earlier protocol, NCP, couldn't handle the tremendous traffic of a global network, and TCP/IP was a common protocol different networks could use to talk to each other. However, it took several years before TCP/IP became the default protocol for the Internet. The International Standards Organization (headquarted in Europe) proposed a competing protocol named OSI (Open Systems Interconnection). It was a more abstract protocol created by some of the world's best computer scientists. However, TCP/IP was a protocol that was already proven and it was gaining momentum.

The United State's government proclaimed OSI was the protocol the Internet was going to use, but it never happened. Too many networks were already using TCP/IP and it was too much trouble to switch. Europe mandated using OSI, but the universities were switching over to TCP/IP anyway because they didn't want to cut themselves off from the giant Internet in the United States.

With TCP/IP, the "global network" was becoming a reality. Universities and government offices were using the network for communicating with colleagues and exchanging data. However, sometimes a less professional application snuck into the Internet. Personal email became more common, and some hackers wrote network games and other recreations. The intent of the Internet was strictly for official business, and it was even a law -- but people started rethinking the purpose of the Internet.



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