When real nerds still ruled the Internet Today, anybody can drive the Information Superhighway. But not too long ago, you actually had to know what you were doing.

November 29, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Someday, historians may look back and mark these pre-millennial years B.N. and A.N. - Before the Net and After the Net.

Not to say the Internet is a second coming (no matter what all those Web entrepreneurs say). But this technology has become a force in American life like none other. These days people fall in love online, are born online, die online. It's a place where you can earn your Ph.D. or your first million.

It's the medium rumormonger Matt Drudge (and later Congress) used to unleash accusations that threaten to bring down a president. It's the technology that tripped up seemingly invincible Microsoft Corp. and sparked the federal antitrust battle.

We've come so far, so fast, it makes the head spin. But this is likely just the beginning.

"Think of this as just a few milliseconds after the Big Bang," suggests leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr in "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet" (TV Books, $27.50), a companion to a PBS documentary of the same name that aired this past week.

For most of us civilians, the Internet indeed appeared to explode into existence out of nowhere around 1994. But the fuse for this techno-cultural Big Bang actually was lighted nearly 40 years ago. How did we get here from there? And where are we going?

"Nerds 2.0.1" is a follow-up to the 1996 PBS hit "Triumph of the Nerds," a goofy yet gripping tale of the pimply-faced teens with towering egos that built the multibillion-dollar personal computer industry.

The rise of the Internet, by contrast, is a story of government paper-pushers and elusive engineers. There are no masters of the universe here, no Bill Gates or Steve Jobs duking it out for supremacy of the desktop. But if there were ever a story of a true triumph of the nerds, this is it.

The academic and civilian engineers who created the Internet are the ur-nerds, the original pocket-protector set. Few grew wealthy from the technology they invented, nor did they become household names. And that's the way most liked it. The early Internet pioneers just wanted a tough technical puzzle, and a quiet spot to solve it.

The ethic fit the medium. Unlike personal computers, the Internet was created not to make money but because Pentagon bean counters wanted to save some.

The Internet emerged in an obscure branch of the Defense Department called the Advanced Research Project Agency. At the time, ARPA was buying expensive mainframe computers for univer-sity research. But as researchers started clamoring for more powerful machines, ARPA feared it would bust its budget. The solution: Gamble on a plan to link the computers together and allow universities to share them instead.

They called the experimental network ARPAnet, and it was built by Bolt, Beranek & Newman in Cambridge, Mass., and other contractors for a million dollars - probably the best million the government ever spent. In October 1969, after years of tinkering, a computer at Stanford University was connected to a mainframe at UCLA to see whether the two machines could communicate.

Len Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at UCLA who helped develop key "packet switching" technology for the fledgling network, was there for the historic test.

"What was the first message? 'What hath God wrought?' or 'Great step for mankind?' " he recalls in "Nerds 2.0.1." "No. All we tried to do was log in from our host to their host.

"Remember - we're engineers."

Gradually, more computers began hooking up to the ARPAnet. It didn't take long before somebody - a Cambridge, Mass.-based engineer named Ray Tomlinson - figured out that if computers could communicate over this network, so could people. In 1972, Tomlinson created the software that allowed a person to send a message from one computer on the network to another: the first e-mail.

A humble man, Tomlinson never bothered to charge anybody for his new communications software. Of his little e-mail programs, he says: "It was just a hack" - nerd-speak from the early days of computing for a clever bit of coding.

But his little "hack" spread like wildfire across the network. Soon everybody was using e-mail - but not to do research. "People were sending more and more personal messages," Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon write in their 1996 book, "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet." "Rumor had it that even a dope deal or two had been made over [the network] in Northern California."

When they saw how fast e-mail was catching on, Internet pioneers understood that the future of the computer network was not computation, but communication. Recalls Kleinrock: "At that point ... some of us began to see this is bigger than what we created."

It was one of the few predictions about the Internet that has actually panned out. Today socializing through e-mail, chat, or instant messaging draws everyone from grade-schoolers to grandmothers to the medium.

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