The 50th anniversary of the first communication on what essentially would become the internet occurred this week, Oct. 29, 1969. The University of Utah was one of the four locations in that original network. It was enthusiastic, forward-thinking research and development that led to the internet. Few envisioned what it might become.

Universities, including Weber State, government agencies and corporate partners frequently collaborate, leading to inventions benefiting us all. Sometimes, as with the internet, it isn’t the original intent, but the hard-to-predict ancillary effects that improve our lives.

In 1958, in response to the success of Russia’s Sputnik, the U.S. formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) under the Pentagon. ARPA researchers were given a mandate and generous support to develop innovative technologies. In 1962, psychologist J.C.R. Licklider joined ARPA to take charge of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). He wrote a famous 1963 memorandum called “Memorandum for Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network,” in which he described some of his ideas for time sharing and computer networking.

Robert Taylor succeeded Licklider as head of IPTO. He noted in 1966 that he needed three different computer terminals to connect to three different machines in three different locations around the nation. Why not just one terminal? Universities working with the IPTO also needed more computing resources. Instead of the government buying more machines for each university, he asked, “Why not share machines?” Taylor revitalized Licklider’s ideas and directed the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, (ARPANET).

Meanwhile, Paul Baran, working for the RAND Corporation, a think tank funded by the American military, faced a problem. Simulations of an attack with nuclear weapons showed that even minor damage to the long-distance phone system would cripple national communications. Baran devised a scheme of breaking signals into blocks of data that could be reassembled after reaching their destination. These blocks of data traveled through a “distributed network” where each “node,” or communication point, could independently decide which path the block of information took to the next node. This allowed data to automatically flow around potential blockages in the network and to reassemble into a complete message at the destination. Baran called his scheme “hot potato” routing, but it became known as “packet switching.”

Interestingly, the Pentagon and AT&T were not interested in Baran’s scheme of distributed communications because it required completely revamping the technology of the national telephone system. However, Robert Taylor’s group liked the approach, not because of its potential for working during a nuclear war, but because of its potential for handling errors. They combined this approach with a computer that sat next to each university’s main computer — the Interface Message Processor (IMP) — the precursor to the modem that connects your home to the internet today.

The first message was from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The first message transmitted between UCLA and SRI was “L,” “O,” “G,” the first three letters of “LOGIN,” and then the system crashed. In December, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah followed those two schools with messages.

Universities were reluctant to connect to the ARPANET. According to Robert Taylor, “Those four sites . . . were the first sites that showed real enthusiasm for the ARPANET projects . . . Many of the other places we were supporting were less enthusiastic because they didn’t want to share their computer cycles with anybody else.” Nevertheless, the defense network began to grow. By 1980, over 200 computers, including some overseas, had joined. Those computers could exchange email, invented by Ray Tomlinson in 1971, transfer files by 1973 and even make conference calls by 1977. Communication, rather than sharing computer resources, became the driving force of connecting to the ARPANET.

The military laid ARPANET to rest in 1990, but other networks took its place. The general public was finally invited to connect via the National Information Infrastructure, which Al Gore called the “information superhighway” in his 1991 Senate bill. That bill also allowed for the commercialization of internet traffic. Today, billions of people use the internet.

This month, WSU honored three scholars for research and one for entrepreneurship: Luke Fernandez and Susan Matt for how technology influences our feelings, John Sohl for work on high-altitude balloons that measure our atmosphere and Bruce Davis for his economic development in Northern Utah. Will any of their work lead to the next great invention? Who knows? Ask again in 50 years.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9

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