Al Gore Didn’t Invent the Internet. These Guys Did.

And it all started at a government research lab in Arlington.

Original photo by RLKitterman on Deviantart

Before Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Google, AOL, the World Wide Web and email, there was only ARPANET. The forerunner to today’s modern internet, the network was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense as a military communications system. And much of its genesis took place in a nondescript Arlington office building.

It began in 1958, when President Eisenhower authorized the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. The agency’s mission was simple: Don’t let the Soviets surprise us again with a technological breakthrough. It should be America doing the surprising.

Staffed with the best engineers, scientists, physicists and communications specialists America had to offer, ARPA became a factory of innovations, from stealth aircrafts to robotic vacuum cleaner technology. What started as an incubator inside the Pentagon soon moved its headquarters to 1400 Wilson Blvd. in Rosslyn. “If there was any place that was the intellectual driving force [behind ARPANET],” says computer scientist and McLean resident Robert Kahn, now considered one of the internet’s founding fathers, “it came from that office in Arlington.”

There, the world’s first interconnected computer network, ARPANET, was largely developed under the leadership of MIT computer scientist Larry Roberts, whom the Defense Department recruited in the early ’60s after he demonstrated that computers thousands of miles apart—for example, one in Boston and one in Santa Monica, California—could “talk” and send “packets” of information to one another.

In order to gain funding authorization from Congress, ARPA scientists were asked to show how the technology could be used for military mobilization in the event of a crisis, such as a nuclear attack. But Roberts and Kahn were already anticipating the benefits to the average American. “I always envisioned that it would become what it is today,” says Roberts, “something that totally reshaped the world’s communications.”

In October 1969, the first message sent across ARPANET traveled from UCLA to a computer console at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. It read simply “Lo.” Though it was supposed to say “Login” (the system crashed before transmitting the entire message), the test proved that ARPANET worked. Three years later, the first public demo of the network was held in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, where attendees marveled over their ability to have text conversations with those at adjacent computers. “Where are you?” one person typed. The response from a recipient several feet away: “I’m in Washington. At the Hilton.”

Roberts, now living in Redwood City, California, says the prototype they unveiled in that hotel ballroom in 1972 is shockingly similar to the internet we use today: “It’s basically the same network…except for a few protocol changes. For the user, it works nearly identical.”

So with all due respect to Al Gore, ARPA deserves the credit for laying the foundation of the modern-day internet.

In 2011, Arlington County recognized this choice bit of hometown history with a marker at the site of the former ARPA headquarters (now known as DARPA, the agency has moved to Ballston). At the bottom of the sign, a long pattern of binary code—zeros and ones—obscures a hidden message. To figure out what it says, one need only to look it up on the internet.

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Categories: Local History