Silicon Valley Landmark: Zott’s and the packet radio test

San Francisco features disproportionately in the history of the digital age. Yet despite the historical coverage it receives, little attention has been given to one of its landmarks, a small wood paneled tavern known as “Zott’s” – officially named “The Alpine Inn” since the mid 1950s.

Its first owner was a Mexican who moved from Santa Clara in the mid 1800s in the wake of the gold rush when that area became crowded by would-have-been gold diggers. His name was Felix Buelna and he built the inn now known as Zott’s on the site of an old pony trail that had been used by rancheros and settlers to reach the coast.

Buelna’s inn was not only an inn, but a place of gambling. Thereafter, in the words of the US National Park Service’s official survey of historic American buildings, the inn had ‘a long string of colorful owners’.

At every turn, the inn has been a focal point for the nare-do-wells of what would become Silicon Valley. In the 1880s the construction workers building Stanford, the university destined to produce the entrepreneurs and technologies that propelled the dot com boom century later, were apparently regulars. When the workers had finished their labors and the university was complete Buelna’s inn became the regular haunt of the University’s students. Lambasting their immoderate peers, the editors of the Stanford Sequoia announced in February 1908 that the student body had been ‘held up to the world as a community composed largely of drunkards’. According to the University’s history, as told by one of its registrars, the student body drank to epic proportions. In January 1909, the president of the University wrote in vexed mood to the county supervisors. He requested that they did not renew the inn’s liquor license because the inn was, in his words, ‘unusually vile, even for a roadhouse, a great injury to the University and a disgrace to San Mateo County’.

Yet the inn, ‘a miserable, low-class saloon of the San Francisco waterfront type’, continued to prosper. When the State of California passed legislation banning the sale of liquor within a mile and a half of educational establishments, and when an army based was established a few years later, the inn profited from its intermediate distance. It was near enough to travel to, but distant enough to be immune from the dry cordon around both base and university. The humble wood paneled inn remained a landmark through the twentieth century as the digital industry grew around it. By early 2001 its car park housed the expensive sports cars of the young Silicon Valley millionaires.

It was fitting then that on 27 August 1976 a van that looked very much like a bread van should parked in Zotts’ beer garden and make Internet history. The van was part of the Stanford Research Institute’s (SRI) packet radio experiment. SRI were pursuing radio networking research under contract with ARPA, and the van was equipped with a computer terminal and radio equipment that allowed it to function as a mobile node in the packet-radio PRNET. The SRI team in the van placed their computer terminal on one of the wooden tables of the beer garden, and connected it to the van. Once setup they used the terminal to send a message from their node on the PRNET to the ARPANET and on to the ARPA node to their contract manager at ARPA. This was the first packet data transmission across two networks using the Internet “TCP” protocol, and the van is now in the Computer History Museum.

This van was the closest one could get to an iPhone in 1977. More on it, in PDF form, in Core 3.1.

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