Steve Crocker was there when the internet was born. The date was Oct. 29, 1969, and the place was the University of California, Los Angeles. Crocker was among a small group of UCLA researchers who sent the first message between the first two nodes of the ARPAnet, the U.S. Department of Defense–funded network that eventually morphed into the modern internet.
Crocker’s biggest contribution to the project was the creation of the Request for Comments, or RFC. Shared among the various research institutions building the ARPAnet, these were documents that sought to describe how this massive network would work, and they were essential to its evolution — so essential, they’re still used today.
Like the RFCs, Crocker is still a vital part of the modern internet. He’s the chairman of the board of ICANN, the organization which operates the internet’s domain naming system, following in the footsteps of his old high school and UCLA buddy Vint Cerf. And like Cerf, Crocker is part of the inaugural class inducted into the Internet Society‘s (ISOC) Hall of Fame.
This week, he spoke with Wired about the first internet transmission, the creation of the RFCs, and their place in history. ‘RFC’ is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary. And so is Steve Crocker.
Wired: Some say the internet was born on Oct. 29, 1969, when the first message was sent between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). But others say it actually arrived a few weeks earlier, when UCLA set up its ARPAnet machines. You were there. Which is it?
Steve Crocker: October. The very first attempt to get some communication between our machine, a Sigma 7, and [Douglas] Engelbart‘s machine, an SDS-940, at SRI.
Famously, it crashed.
We tried to log in [to the SRI machine]. We had a very simple terminal protocol so that you could act like you were a terminal at our end and log in to their machine. But the software had a small bug in it. We sent the ‘l’ and the ‘o,’ but the ‘g’ caused a crash.
Their system had the sophistication that if you started typing a command and you got to the point where there was no other possibility, it would finish the command for you. So when you typed ‘l-o-g,’ it would respond with the full word: ‘l-o-g-i-n.’ But the software that we had ginned up wasn’t expecting more than one character to ever come back. The ‘l’ was typed, and we got an ‘l’ back. The ‘o’ was typed, and we got an ‘o’ back. But the ‘g’ was typed, and it wasn’t expecting the ‘g-i-n.’ A simple problem. Easily fixed.
Wired: And the internet was born?
Crocker: Some say that this was a single network and therefore not ‘the internet.’ The ARPAnet was all one kind of router, and it didn’t interconnect with other networks. Some people say that the internet was created when multiple networks were connected to each other — that the IP [internet protocol] and TCP [transmission control protocol] work on top of that were instrumental in creating the internet.
The people who worked at that layer, particularly Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn [the inventors of IP and TCP], tend to make a careful distinction between the ARPAnet and the later expansion into multiple networks, and they mark the birth of the internet from that later point.
But, conversely, the basic design of protocol layers and documentation and much of the upper structure was done as part of the ARPAnet and continued without much modification as the internet came into being. So, from the user point of view, Telnet, FTP, and e-mail and so forth were all born early on, on the ARPAnet, and from that point of view, the expansion to the internet was close to seamless. You can mark the birth of internet back to the ARPAnet.