From The Pentagon To Monty Python: The Internet Turns 40

[ Posted Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 – 16:57 UTC ]

Tomorrow is the internet's fortieth birthday. Its creators are even throwing it a birthday party at the University of California, Los Angeles, the origin of the first message ever transmitted over what we know today as "the internet," on October 29, 1969. If you're wondering what the first message ever transmitted was -- the digital age's "Come here, Watson," statement, as it were -- it consisted of two letters: "LO." It was actually supposed to be "LOG," as in "LOG IN," but the receiving computer crashed after receiving just the first two letters -- not a very auspicious beginning, it must be admitted. Still, for poetic reasons, "LO" seems pretty apt: "Lo! The Internet was created!"

The project, the first open linkage of two computers over a distance, was paid for by the Pentagon. Specifically, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. This was a Cold War agency created out of fear -- the fear that the Russians were ahead of us technologically. This fear was not unfounded at the time, since DARPA was a hasty response to the Russians launching the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Americans could tune in their ham radios to a little "beep...beep...beep..." signal that crossed over our skies, and thus know that the Russians had done something we hadn't managed to do yet -- which was not only downright ominous in those days, but also downright inconceivable to many Americans. This was the dawn of the "space race" between the two countries, which culminated with the landing on the moon in 1969 of two Americans. But it also culminated in the same year with what was then called ARPANET.

The internet's birth was in the depths of the Cold War, created for scientists to exchange some very hot data -- the design and testing of nuclear weapons, for instance. Its transformation from its militaristic beginnings to where it stands now should be seen as the greatest "swords into plowshares" story in the history of mankind. Because today, while its origins are at best dimly remembered, what it has morphed into has gone far, far beyond the original intent -- and changed our planet and our way of life as a result.

Technology has grown by such leaps and bounds since 1969 that it's hard to conceive how things were before we all had access to computers. The 1970s saw the dawn of the "personal computer" -- a phrase unthinkable a mere decade earlier, when computers had shrunk from boxcar-sized to merely pickup-truck-sized... but were not expected to shrink much more. But the rapid progress of the microchip ushered in a revolution in such shrinkage. The first small computers were merely hobbyist machines for scientists and tinkerers, but Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak saw their true potential, and changed the world with the introduction of what became the Apple II. IBM, while much slower to accept such a radical idea, eventually introduced its own version, the "PC," or "Personal Computer." Since then, computers have gotten faster and data storage has gotten much, much better, so that today the machine you are likely reading this on is more powerful than the machines they were designing nuclear weapons on back in 1969. Indeed, the computer in your cell phone may even be more powerful.

The concept of linking computers together grew by leaps and bounds as well. In 1983, DARPA in essence split the net into two parts, the military component (renamed MILNET), and what became the commercial, public internet. Also at this time, TCP/IP protocols were introduced, which also fed the eventual explosive growth. The non-military net was also at this time opened up to much wider use within the universities where it had originated.

Networking was fast growing in the early 1980s on two other fronts -- the Local Area Network (LAN) and the first subscription service for online access. It was the era of TokenRing, Ethernet, and AppleTalk; of AOL and CompuServe. It may stun younger users today, but back then people paid ten bucks per hour to access online services -- which were laughably crude by today's standards. Heavy online users would often pay hundreds of dollars a month to access text-only, non-web data over their phone lines.

It was also the era of the beginnings of information overload. This led to the introduction of "bulletin boards" and automated file searching. The real beginnings of what we call "the internet" today were a message-posting area of the net called UseNet; and the beginnings of the Google-type search engine were the humble "gopher" software of the time.

But the real explosion came about in the early 1990s, with two cornerstone events -- opening up the internet to commerce, and the introduction of the World Wide Web. The internet, now being called "the Internet" (previously the term had not been used -- the inventor of the concept, in an early-1960s paper, called his dream an "Intergalactic Computer Network," which I always thought sounded way, way cooler...) was about to grow beyond all conception.

The World Wide Web, still known to us today in that "www" prefix in web addresses, was dreamed up a Swiss laboratory for (once again) nuclear research -- the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or CERN. For the second time, nuclear researchers came up with an idea which quickly outgrew its original scientific data-sharing purposes. The combination of hypertext (clickable links) and a common file format which included graphics (the HyperText Markup Language, or HTML) were soon exploited by the world's first truly effective graphic "browser," Mosaic. From Mosaic, Netscape was born, and the rest is history.

Of course it hasn't all been wine and roses along the way. The internet (the term is now used increasingly without benefit of capitalization, a mark of how common an idea it has become) also gave birth to online fraud and other forms of online crime. Back when the internet originated, the Pentagon was interested in its advanced researchers having the ability to easily talk to each other, to better share information. This information had a goal -- to always always stay one step ahead of our foes. At the time, this was mainly the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China. These days, some of the most prevalent data attacks come from malware (Trojan horses, DDoS attacks, viruses, worms, botnets, and all the rest) which originate all over the world, with an unhealthy portion coming from (you guessed it) Russia and China. Which brings us, in a way, full circle.

But for many of us, the internet will serve one very important function far, far into the future. I speak of the immortalization in digital history of Monty Python's Flying Circus. When contemporaneous comedy troupes will long have been forgotten, centuries hence, Monty Python will still live on in its anti-paean to a Hormel meats product -- the lowly "spiced ham" in a can known as Spam.

Spam was widely consumed in Britain during World War II, due to it not being rationed as most meats were at the time (which alone says something). Spam became prevalent as a civilian wartime staple as a result. Which explains the origins of the Monty Python sketch, where a man and a woman argue over a cafe's breakfast selections which seem to contain far too much spam for the woman's liking (example from the menu: "Spam, egg, Spam, Spam, bacon, and Spam"). The idea that spam is prevalent and unwanted was first applied in the infancy of online gaming, and in the early 1990s was used specifically to describe an unwanted email solicitation for money. Knowing the makeup of online gamers back then, it's easy to see that a Monty Python reference would have caught on quickly, as one thing all geeks unanimously agree upon (both back then and today) is the sheer awesomeness of Monty Python. Because the term spam is now so universally accepted to describe unwanted email (even Hormel has largely given up on trying to stamp such usage out), it follows that the story of its origins -- complete with the original Monty Python "Spam sketch" -- will live forever in the digital world. For which we have the Pentagon to thank.

But in any case, tomorrow when you're reading your email, or deleting spam (90 percent of all email is now spam; an astounding figure, when you think about it), or browsing the web, or checking stock quotes, or doing your banking online, or reading an online news article, or writing a blog post, or researching a topic, or using a search engine, or playing an online game, or playing online poker for money, or even just looking at some porn -- take a moment to stop and raise your glass in a toast. Because the internet you are using to do all of these things is having a birthday, and it's the big four-oh.

Meaning we should all mark the occasion with a hearty: "Happy 40th birthday, internet!"


[Historical Note: For those interested, the very first "web page" is still available online, just to show how far we've come in less than two decades. It's pretty basic by today's standards, but the concept of "links" was brand new back then, keep in mind.]


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


2 Comments on “From The Pentagon To Monty Python: The Internet Turns 40”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Heh. I still get a kick out of that "first web page" because it really IS linked directly or indirectly to everything else. I've a short story in mind of a future data-archaeologist who stumbles across it in 5,000 AD and declares it a holy relic of the Singularity or something.

  2. [2] 
    kevinem2 wrote:


    Did you ever watch the BBC series Red Dwarf? If so, did you see the early episode where Cat (and his forebears) ended up worshipping the Gospel of Lister?
    Your comment made me think of that show.


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