As I Was Saying…

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Happy Birthday, Dear Internet

October 29, 2009

I know it looks and acts younger, but the Internet is 40 today. It was on October 29, 1969, that the first message was sent from one computer (the Internet’s first node) to another computer (the Internet’s second node).

By today’s standards, the computers of 1969 were real clunkers. That first message was only two letters long, after all, with confirmatory phone calls between letters. I like to point out that a typical cellphone these days has more processing power than NASA’s Apollo control room at the time of the first moon landing. Most of the power in today’s computers, of course, goes toward making the computer seem less like a machine and more like a companion.

Even so, I often wish I had been an Internet pioneer. On that momentous day in 1969 when a bunch of geeks at Stanford were creating the Internet, I was in my ninth month of military service. I didn’t really appreciate that computers had already seriously affected my life. Thanks to a tip I got from a colonel on the day I signed in at Pease Air Force Base, the Air Force’s primitive personnel database was working to keep me from being sent to Vietnam.

Here’s the back story on that. The database was totally unprepared for “irrational” input, in my case a signed and dated but otherwise blank volunteer statement. I was proud to volunteer for…nothing and nowhere. That mattered because of the way the database worked.

Say, for example, that the Air Force needed a 922 specialist (like me) with a rank of E-5 (like me) to go to Vietnam. The computer would look for 922 E-5’s who had volunteered for Vietnam. I hadn’t volunteered for Vietnam (or anywhere else) so my name wouldn’t pop up.  If nobody’s name popped up, the computer would switch to the list of non-volunteers, the people who had not signed volunteer statements. My name, however, wasn’t on that list because I had signed the volunteer statement. The result was that the computer couldn’t find me either as a volunteer or as a non-volunteer.

Leonard Kleinrock, the computer scientist interviewed in the article linked above, speaks of the openness and trust among computer scientists and Internet users in those early days. That sort of innocence about implications probably carried over into the programming of that Air Force personnel database. From that point of view, my blank volunteer statement probably counts as an early computer “hack.”

So, maybe I really was a pioneer!

2 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Dear Internet”

  1. Darlene Says:

    I really learned new stuff from your post today. I don’t think I would have believed anyone 40 years ago if they told me I would be typing a message that could be read around the world in a a very short time.

    You were clever to avoid Viet Nam service the way you did. It shows brains are better than brawn. (Not that you didn’t have that, I’m sure.)

  2. Pete Says:

    Actually, Darlene, I didn’t understand what that volunteer statement had accomplished until about 25 years after the fact. I just did what the colonel told me to do after I answered his questions by saying, yes, I wanted to stay right where I was.

    By 1969, there were career members of the military, both officers and enlisted, who had soured on the Vietnam adventure and were working in small ways to minimize its damage to young soldiers, sailors and airmen.

    I have no idea who that colonel was, but I certainly owe him my sanity—and perhaps my life.

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