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Inventing the Future : UCLA Scientist Who Helped Create Internet Isn’t Done Yet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was there at the start--the day the very first message landed on the information highway.

It was Nov. 21, 1969, and Leonard Kleinrock made one last check of the system that he had come up with to let computers talk to each other over telephone lines instead of waiting for magnetic tapes or punch cards to be exchanged by mail.

The equipment was stuffed inside a refrigerator-size cabinet in the middle of Room 3420 at UCLA’s Boelter Hall. Computer science professor Kleinrock and several graduate students watched anxiously as a brief “are you receiving this?” query was typed into an IBM Selectric typewriter keyboard wired to the machine.

Moments later came the reply from a lone computer about 400 miles away in San Francisco: Yes.

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In a blink of an eye, the Internet was born.

These days, there are millions of users instead of only two. And the man who helped invent the Internet 25 years ago is trying to help reinvent it.

Kleinrock, 60, is in Washington today to brief Department of Education officials on ways that the Internet could be a model for an information superhighway linking computer, cable television, telephone and broadcast technologies.

The ideas have come from a 16-member National Information Infrastructure panel of scientists, communications industry officials and academicians headed by Kleinrock for the National Science Foundation.

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The committee has sketched out the basic framework for a future computer network accessible to all, yet sophisticated enough to adapt to future technologies.

“If we do it right, we can fold in everything--entertainment, science, business, you name it, into one network,” Kleinrock said. “We envision something serving not only the nutty scientist or the couch potato, but the business world as a whole.”

The idea of hooking computers together so researchers could share ideas sounded wacky to many scientists the Saturday before Labor Day in 1969. That is when what has become known as Internet Node No. 1 was wheeled into Kleinrock’s UCLA lab.

The clunky, $100,000 machine, called an interface message processor, was designed to translate commands between computer mainframes built by Honeywell, Burroughs, IBM and Digital. It needed special “packet-switching” technology promoted by Kleinrock to connect computers that were miles apart.

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The machine had been commissioned by the federal government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, an organization set up in 1958 in response to the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik satellite the year before.

The Department of Defense-sponsored agency supported computer researchers scattered nationwide. By the late 1960s, the agency began looking for a way to save money by letting the growing group of scientists share computers.

The resulting project, dubbed Arpanet, would eventually evolve into the Internet.

Kleinrock was recruited to help after writing an MIT graduate school thesis on an obscure topic called “data networks.” It had been published as a book a year before Kleinrock joined the UCLA faculty in 1963.

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“Len was the best one in the country to do it,” said Larry Roberts, now a Foster City, Calif., research executive who was in charge of Arpanet development in the mid-1960s.

Scientists say packet-switching is a procedure in which data is partitioned into small bundles. Each carries its own delivery address and travels through the data network independently to its destination.

“Think of it as freeways being the lines and cars being the packets,” said Vinton Cerf, a communication company executive who heads the nonprofit Internet Society--and who was one of those present in Room 3420 the day the Internet was born.

Cerf, now of Reston, Va., was a graduate student at the time who was working on the software that pumped data in and out of Node No. 1.

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“Before the Arpanet project started, it was Len whose theoretical work showed that the concept of store-and-forward switching actually made sense,” Cerf said.

Kleinrock--who received the 1982 Ericsson Prize (considered by some the Nobel Prize of telecommunications) from the King of Sweden--credits Superman for starting his career.

He said he was 6 when he spied plans for a homemade crystal radio set in a Superman comic book centerfold. He scrounged up the parts and assembled them. And when it worked, he found himself hooked on electronics.

Not everyone was hooked at first on the concept of the Internet.

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For the first few months, the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s computer network consisted solely of outlets at UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.

“I’d figured that by 1974 it would be pretty widespread,” but it wasn’t, said Robert Taylor, a former agency computer research administrator who is now with a Palo Alto computer firm.

“Nobody wanted to connect to the network. They were afraid their machines would be overloaded by network users,” Kleinrock said.

Node No. 1 was replaced with faster equipment in the late 1970s. UCLA offered to donate it to the Smithsonian in 1989. “But they said no. Now the Smithsonian wants it and we’ve said no,” he said.

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Kleinrock, a Brentwood resident, said he spends about 30 hours a week using the Internet.

It is still a research tool for people such as the Bombay professor appealing this week for data on “Bacillus subtilis genomic” or the Florida horticulturists growing “beer-drinking orchids.” But it also posts tasteless jokes, political dissertations and games.

Work on the information superhighway is just beginning, Kleinrock said.

“We don’t know where this is heading,” he said. “We didn’t know 25 years ago. And we don’t know now. We’re feeling our way in a new world.”

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