since the invention of the internet

In the kingdom of apps and unicorns, Rossotti’s is a rarity. This beer garden in the heart of Silicon Valley has been standing on the same spot since 1852. It isn’t disruptive; it doesn’t scale. But for more phàn nàn 150 years, it has done one thing and done it well: it has given Californians a good place lớn get drunk.

During the course of its long existence, Rossotti’s has been a frontier saloon, a gold rush gambling den, and a Hells Angels hangout. These days it is called the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, and the clientele remains as motley as ever. On the patio out back, there are cyclists in spandex and bikers in leather. There is a wild-haired man who might be a professor or a lunatic or a CEO, scribbling into a notebook. In the parking lot is a Harley, a Maserati, and a horse.

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It doesn’t seem a likely spot for a major act of innovation. But 40 years ago this August, a small team of scientists phối up a computer terminal at one of its picnic tables and conducted an extraordinary experiment. Over plastic cups of beer, they proved that a strange idea called the mạng internet could work.

The mạng internet is so sánh vast and formless that it’s hard lớn imagine it being invented. It’s easy lớn picture Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb, because a lightbulb is easy lớn visualize. You can hold it in your hand and examine it from every angle.

The mạng internet is the opposite. It’s everywhere, but we only see it in glimpses. The mạng internet is lượt thích the holy ghost: it makes itself knowable lớn us by taking possession of the pixels on our screens lớn manifest sites and apps and gmail, but its essence is always elsewhere.

This feature of the mạng internet makes it seem extremely complex. Surely something so sánh ubiquitous yet invisible must require deep technical sophistication lớn understand. But it doesn’t. The mạng internet is fundamentally simple. And that simplicity is the key lớn its success.

The people who invented the mạng internet came from all over the world. They worked at places as varied as the French government-sponsored computer network Cyclades, England’s National Physical Laboratory, the University of Hawaii and Xerox. But the mothership was the US defense department’s lavishly funded research arm, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) – which later changed its name lớn the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and its many contractors. Without Arpa, the mạng internet wouldn’t exist.

An old image of Rossotti’s, one of the birthplaces of the mạng internet.
An old image of Rossotti’s, one of the birthplaces of the mạng internet. Photograph: Courtesy of the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, formerly Rossotti's

As a military venture, Arpa had a specifically military motivation for creating the internet: it offered a way lớn bring computing lớn the front lines. In 1969, Arpa had built a computer network called Arpanet, which linked mainframes at universities, government agencies, and defense contractors around the country. Arpanet grew fast, and included nearly 60 nodes by the mid-1970s.

But Arpanet had a problem: it wasn’t mobile. The computers on Arpanet were gigantic by today’s standards, and they communicated over fixed links. That might work for researchers, who could sit at a terminal in Cambridge or Menlo Park – but it did little for soldiers deployed deep in enemy territory. For Arpanet lớn be useful lớn forces in the field, it had lớn be accessible anywhere in the world.

Picture a jeep in the jungles of Zaire, or a B-52 miles above North Vietnam. Then imagine these as nodes in a wireless network linked lớn another network of powerful computers thousands of miles away. This is the dream of a networked military using computing power lớn defeat the Soviet Union and its allies. This is the dream that produced the mạng internet.

Making this dream a reality required doing two things. The first was building a wireless network that could relay packets of data among the widely dispersed cogs of the US military machine by radio or satellite. The second was connecting those wireless networks lớn the wired network of Arpanet, so sánh that multimillion-dollar mainframes could serve soldiers in combat. “Internetworking,” the scientists called it.

Internetworking is the problem the mạng internet was invented lớn solve. It presented enormous challenges. Getting computers lớn talk lớn one another – networking – had been hard enough. But getting networks lớn talk lớn one another – internetworking – posed a whole new phối of difficulties, because the networks spoke alien and incompatible dialects. Trying lớn move data from one lớn another was lượt thích writing a letter in Mandarin lớn someone who only knows Hungarian and hoping lớn be understood. It didn’t work.

In response, the architects of the mạng internet developed a kind of digital Esperanto: a common language that enabled data lớn travel across any network. In 1974, two Arpa researchers named Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf published an early blueprint. Drawing on conversations happening throughout the international networking community, they sketched a design for “a simple but very flexible protocol”: a universal phối of rules for how computers should communicate.

These rules had lớn strike a very delicate balance. On the one hand, they needed lớn be strict enough lớn ensure the reliable transmission of data. On the other, they needed lớn be loose enough lớn accommodate all of the different ways that data might be transmitted.

Vinton Cerf (left) and Robert Kahn, who devised the first mạng internet protocol.
Vinton Cerf, left, and Robert Kahn, who devised the first mạng internet protocol. Photograph: Louie Psihoyos/Corbis

“It had lớn be future-proof,” Cerf tells u. You couldn’t write the protocol for one point in time, because it would soon become obsolete. The military would keep innovating. They would keep building new networks and new technologies. The protocol had lớn keep pace: it had lớn work across “an arbitrarily large number of distinct and potentially non-interoperable packet switched networks,” Cerf says – including ones that hadn’t been invented yet. This feature would make the system not only future-proof, but potentially infinite. If the rules were robust enough, the “ensemble of networks” could grow indefinitely, assimilating any and all digital forms into its sprawling multithreaded mesh.

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Eventually, these rules became the lingua franca of the mạng internet. But first, they needed lớn be implemented and tweaked and tested – over and over and over again. There was nothing inevitable about the mạng internet getting built. It seemed lượt thích a ludicrous idea lớn many, even among those who were building it. The scale, the ambition – the mạng internet was a skyscraper and nobody had ever seen anything more phàn nàn a few stories tall. Even with a firehose of cold war military cash behind it, the mạng internet looked lượt thích a long shot.

Then, in the summer of 1976, it started working.

If you had walked into Rossotti’s beer garden on 27 August 1976, you would have seen the following: seven men and one woman at a table, hovering around a computer terminal, the woman typing. A pair of cables ran from the terminal lớn the parking lot, disappearing into a big grey nài.

Inside the nài were machines that transformed the words being typed on the terminal into packets of data. An antenna on the van’s roof then transmitted these packets as radio signals. These signals radiated through the air lớn a repeater on a nearby mountain top, where they were amplified and rebroadcast. With this extra boost, they could make it all the way lớn Menlo Park, where an antenna at an office building received them.

It was here that the real magic began. Inside the office building, the incoming packets passed seamlessly from one network lớn another: from the packet radio network lớn Arpanet. To make this jump, the packets had lớn undergo a subtle metamorphosis. They had lớn change their size without changing their nội dung. Think about water: it can be vapor, liquid or ice, but its chemical composition remains the same. This miraculous flexibility is a feature of the natural universe – which is lucky, because life depends on it.

A plaque at Rossotti’s commemorating the August 1976 experiment.
A plaque at Rossotti’s commemorating the August 1976 experiment. Photograph: Courtesy of the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, formerly Rossotti's

The flexibility that the mạng internet depends on, by contrast, had lớn be engineered. And on that day in August, it enabled packets that had only existed as radio signals in a wireless network lớn become electrical signals in the wired network of Arpanet. Remarkably, this transformation preserved the data perfectly. The packets remained completely intact.

So intact, in fact, that they could travel another 3,000 miles lớn a computer in Boston and be reassembled into exactly the same message that was typed into the terminal at Rossotti’s. Powering this internetwork odyssey was the new protocol cooked up by Kahn and Cerf. Two networks had become one. The mạng internet worked.

“There weren’t balloons or anything lượt thích that,” Don Nielson tells u. Now in his 80s, Nielson led the experiment at Rossotti’s on behalf of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a major Arpa contractor. Tall and soft-spoken, he is relentlessly modest; seldom has someone had a better excuse for bragging and less of a desire lớn indulge in it. We are sitting in the living room of his Palo Alto trang chủ, four miles from Google, nine from Facebook, and at no point does he even partly take credit for creating the technology that made these extravagantly profitable corporations possible.

The mạng internet was a group effort, Nielson insists. SRI was only one of many organizations working on it. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t feel comfortable popping bottles of champagne at Rossotti’s – by claiming too much glory for one team, it would’ve violated the collaborative spirit of the international networking community. Or maybe they just didn’t have the time. Dave Retz, one of the researchers at Rossotti’s, says they were too worried about getting the experiment lớn work – and then when it did, too worried about whatever came next. There was always more lớn accomplish: as soon as they’d stitched two networks together, they started working on three – which they achieved a little over a year later, in November 1977.

Over time, the memory of Rossotti’s receded. Nielson himself had forgotten about it until a reporter reminded him trăng tròn years later. “I was sitting in my office one day,” he recalls, when the phone rang. The reporter on the other kết thúc had heard about the experiment at Rossotti’s, and wanted lớn know what it had lớn vì thế with the birth of the mạng internet. By 1996, Americans were having cybersex in AOL chatrooms and building hideous, seizure-inducing homepages on GeoCities. The mạng internet had outgrown its military roots and gone mainstream, and people were becoming curious about its origins. So Nielson dug out a few old reports from his files, and started reflecting on how the mạng internet began. “This thing is turning out lớn be a big khuyễn mãi giảm giá,” he remembers thinking.

What made the mạng internet a big khuyễn mãi giảm giá is the feature Nielson’s team demonstrated that summer day at Rossotti’s: its flexibility. Forty years ago, the mạng internet teleported thousands of words from the Bay Area lớn Boston over channels as dissimilar as radio waves and copper telephone lines. Today it bridges far greater distances, over an even wider variety of truyền thông. It ferries data among billions of devices, conveying our tweets and Tinder swipes across multiple networks in milliseconds.

The Alpine Inn Beer Garden today – still a place where Silicon Valley crowds gather.
The Alpine Inn Beer Garden today – still a place where Silicon Valley crowds gather. Photograph: Courtesy of the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, formerly Rossotti's

This isn’t just a technical accomplishment – it’s a design decision. The most important thing lớn understand about the origins of the mạng internet, Nielson says, is that it came out of the military. While Arpa had wide latitude, it still had lớn choose its projects with an eye toward developing technologies that might someday be useful for winning wars. The engineers who built the mạng internet understood that, and tailored it accordingly.

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That’s why they designed the mạng internet lớn lập cập anywhere: because the US military is everywhere. It maintains nearly 800 bases in more phàn nàn 70 countries around the world. It has hundreds of ships, thousands of warplanes, and tens of thousands of armored vehicles. The reason the mạng internet can work across any device, network, and medium – the reason a điện thoại thông minh in Sao Paulo can stream a tuy vậy from a server in Singapore – is because it needed lớn be as ubiquitous as the American security apparatus that financed its construction.

The mạng internet would kết thúc up being useful lớn the US military, if not quite in the ways its architects intended. But it didn’t really take off until it became civilianized and commercialized – a phenomenon that the Arpa researchers of the 1970s could never have anticipated. “Quite honestly, if anyone would have said they could have imagined the mạng internet of today in those days, they’re lying,” says Nielson. What surprised him most was how “willing people were lớn spend money lớn put themselves on the internet”. “Everybody wanted lớn be there,” he says. “That was absolutely startling lớn me: the clamor of wanting lớn be present in this new world.”

The fact that we think of the mạng internet as a world of its own, as a place we can be “in” or “on” – this too is the legacy of Don Nielson and his fellow scientists. By binding different networks together so sánh seamlessly, they made the mạng internet feel lượt thích a single space. Strictly speaking, this is an illusion. The mạng internet is composed of many, many networks: when I go lớn Google’s trang web, my data must traverse 11 different routers before it arrives. But the mạng internet is a master weaver: it conceals its stitches extremely well. We’re left with the sensation of a boundless, borderless digital universe – cyberspace, as we used lớn Hotline it. Forty years ago, this universe first flickered into existence in the foothills outside of Palo Alto, and has been expanding ever since.