Kleinrock on ARPANET chatter

Researching my book on the history of the Internet,  I asked Len Kleinrock three key questions yesterday. I asked him at what point it was clear that the early ARPANET – the forerunner to the Internet – became dominated by informal chatter between researchers. The answer was interesting.

The point at which it became abundantly clear to me that people-to-people communication was the dominant form of traffic carried by the internet was in mid-1972 shortly after email was introduced to the internet (network email was introduced in April 1972). Email traffic took over the traffic very quickly. Prior to that, the traffic was mainly file transfers and remote use of computers by researchers who logged on to machines that could be accessed through the net.

The purpose of the network was to share expensive computing resources among geographically distributed research sites – not, at least initially, to act as a handy method to chat with colleagues from different locations. The very first connection between two nodes on the ARPA network occurred in October in 1969, and it took some time for the network to grow, since the contractor, BBN, delivered one new IMP machine required for each new site to connect per month. From September 1971 to October 1972, traffic on the ARPANET grew by 26% per month, and the size of the network increased at one node per month.  [Lawrence Roberts, “Network Rationale: a 5-year reevaluation”, excerpted in ARPANET News, issue 1, March 1973, p. 12.]. In short, then, the dominance of person-to-person communications on the network came at a very early point.

Professor Kleinrock was deeply involved in the establishment and operation of ARPANET in the late 1960s-early 70s , and ran the Measurements Center at UCLA that monitored the performance of the experimental network. In a post on his own website, he recalls that staff working in each centre connected by ARPANET were keen to communicate informally with their peers working on the same problems at the other sites.With a working data network at their disposal, it was a short leap to sending short messages to each other across the network.

Electronic mail (email) was an ad-hoc add-on to the network in those early days and it immediately began to dominate network traffic….the network was already demonstrating its most attractive characteristic, namely, its ability to promote “people- to-people” interaction. [source]

What is remarkable is that E-mail was ‘unplanned, unanticipated, and mostly unsupported’, according to Frank Heart, who led the construction and maintenance of the IMP machines that ran the network.[“A history of the ARPANET: the first decade”, BBN report 4799, (aka “completion report”), 1981]. This, however, was part of the guiding vision that had influenced the generation of computer scientists behind early networking. In 1960,  J.C.R.  Licklider and Robert Taylor predicted:

In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face…

[-J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, “The Computer as a Communication Device,” Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, volume HFE-1, pages 4-11, March 1960, reprinted in “In Memoriam: J.C.R. Licklider: 1915-1990”, Palo Alto, August 7, 1990, p. 21.]

And the point is that different technologies can have different social impacts. Take time-share versus batch processing computing in the1950s. John Naughton recalls noticing the emergence of a sense of community among the students who worked on time sharing computers in the 1950s. His peers relied on “batch processing”, a system where by a stream of different individuals could prepare parcels of instructions for a computer in advance, thereby cutting down on their use of valuable computer time. They prepared their individual computer code in isolation, and then delivered them to technicians who submitted them in batches to the university’s mainframe.

In contrast, the students using the timeshare computer were able to directly operate it using teletype, and eventually keyboard and screens. The students using the time sharing system swapped electronic messages, and generally socialized in a manner totally unlike the batch processing brigade. Naughton and his peers ‘didn’t even recognize each other except as members of the same queue’ for processing time.
[John Naughton, A brief history of the future: from radio days to Internet years in a life time, New York, 2000), p. 75.]

More anon…

P.S. if any one has archives of the SF-lovers and wine discussions on ARPANET, please let me know!

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