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How Al Gore and I Invented the Internet

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-166
Keywords: NSF, NSFNET, internet, supercomputer, ARPANET.
Published in the March-2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 9/23/2012 and is copyrighted ©2012 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
the explicit permission of the author.

 

Since the hyperbole of the title has attracted your attention, I want to take you on a stroll down memory lane to the year 1984.  On January 1,1984 the Bell System divested itself into a flock of Baby Bell companies.  In a 1984 Super Bowl commercial, the Apple Corporation announced a new personal computer, which they called "the Macintosh".  Ronald Reagan was running for his 2nd term as President against Walter Mondale.  The 1984 Summer Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles and were boycotted by the Soviet Union .  Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the Z0 and W± bosons, and quantum mechanics pioneer Paul Dirac died.  Tom Clancy published The Hunt for Red October, and William Gibson published Neuromancer.  The Bhopal Disaster at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India killed 8,000 people outright, with the death toll ultimately rising to over 23,000.    There was no Internet as we know it in 1984, and the World Wide Web and web browsers would not come on the scene until the 1990s.

In 1984 I was a Professor of Physics at the University of Washington in Seattle (UW).  At that time, I was engaged in research in experimental nuclear physics with heavy ions, using accelerators at the UW Nuclear Physics Lab, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California .  I was among the first generation of physicists who leaned to use computers as a principal tool in physics research.  I had developed one of the first online computer systems for data collection, an SDS-930 system at the UW Nuclear Physics Lab, and I had written some important nuclear modeling software.  In the physics community I had acquired something of a reputation as a physics computer jock.

In the early 1980s Cray Research, Inc. of Chippewa Falls,Wisconsin began producing wonderful supercomputers, in particular the Cray X-MP supercomputers costing about $4-8 million.  These supercomputers were being sold to the U.S. Department of Energy weapons labs at Livermore and Los Alamos, to the National Security Agency and other secret intelligence organizations, and to private industries with sufficient cash, like big insurance companies.

The  Crays were beautiful objects, the likes of which the computer industry had never seen before.  Form followed function to make them tall C-shaped towers hiding long equal-length wire interconnect bundles in the middle, with low boxy projections around the base containing cooling units and power supplies that formed padded bench seats around the C-ring.  Programmers in need of physical contact with the object of their worship could sit there on the Cray's bench and lean back against 400 mega-flops of warm, high speed computing power.

Unfortunately, because of the cost, these supercomputers were essentially unavailable to university researchers.  A group of academic theoretical physicists, like hungry urchins in the snow, staring with envy through frost-streaked windows at the feast of massive calculations that their national-lab competitors could do, petitioned the National Science Foundation (NSF) to do something about this situation by setting up supercomputer centers at which university researchers could have access to these new powerful machines.  In response, in late 1983 the NSF created an ad hoc advisory committee to study the problem and make recommendations.  Several of the computer-hungry theorists were appointed to the Committee, along with a Livermore Cray-operations manager, and two experimentalists.  I was one of the experimentalists.  The chair of the Committee was the late Prof. Herb Chen of UC Irvine, a neutrino experimentalist who was the inventor of the SNO heavy-water solar neutrino detector (which he did not live to see in operation at a deep mine in Sudbury, Canada).  I had the distinction of being the only member of the committee who was NOT based at or near a location that might become a NSF Supercomputer Center .

Our Committee met at a variety of locations in the early months of 1984, at Washington, DC , O'Hare Airport, UC Irvine, and the University of Houston.  We had a long agenda.  The other members of the committee were concerned with the mandate of the supercomputer centers: how many Centers with what geographical distribution, what kind of supercomputers to specify, how to apportion the available computer time to users, how to handle tapes and data input/output, how to accommodate on-site visitors and remote users, how many staff members the Centers would have and how much time for personal research they would be allowed, how tightly the Centers would be coupled to a sponsoring organization like universities or national labs, how they would be governed, how much overhead they would pay, etc.

On the other hand, my concerns and my input at the committee meetings were focused on how remote users like me, far away from all of the proposed sites, would be able to access the supercomputers, submit their jobs, and receive their results.  The University of Washington in Seattle is in the remote northwest corner of the nation, and I would be thousands of miles away from any of the proposed Supercomputer Centers.   I envisioned calculations that needed to receive the input of gigabytes of experimental data and to generate outputs of gigabytes of graphs, plots, figures, and multi-dimensional matrices.  A dialup modem on a long-distance telephone line was not going to do the job for that kind of computing.

So how could fast supercomputer access be provided to remote off-site users like me?  The US military had already established ARPANET, a TCP/IP-based computer network that our physics colleagues who had ties to the weapons labs were already using for e-mail, computer access, graphics, and high speed data transfer.  I proposed and promoted the idea to the Committee that, along with the establishment of five or so supercomputer centers, the NSF needed to create the equivalent of ARPANET for the supercomputer users, so that mere mortals without weapons-lab connections could use it to access the new supercomputer systems.

There were, of course, many points in need of extended discussion by our Committee.  Our meetings droned on, hour after hour, presentation after presentation, meeting after meeting, until the final meeting at which the chairman had to write the consensus committee report.  Rather to my surprise, the creation of an ARPANET-clone called NSFNET emerged as a bulleted item in the committee's report.  Herb Chen did an excellent job of writing the draft report, we made comments and corrections, and it was submitted to the NSF.  I cynically believed that it would vanish without a trace beneath the murky waters of Washington bureaucracy, but that did not happen.

The following year, the Supercomputer Center Initiative appeared as a line item in the NSF's proposed budget.  Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, who was then on the right committees of the U.S. Senate, was interested in cutting-edge technology.  He was nudged by his constituents from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, who told him and his staff that this NSF Supercomputer Initiative was a very good idea.  There was some resistance in Congress to the idea that the supercomputer centers needed a network, but Gore and his staff got behind overall initiative and pushed very hard.  The result was that five new NSF Supercomputer Centers were created in Princeton ,NJ, Ithaca, NY, Pittsburgh, PA, Urbana-Champlain, IL , and San Diego, CA , and the NSFNET connecting them to universities and other users became a reality.

As it turned out, I never actually used any of the supercomputers at the NSF Supercomputer Centers that I had helped to create.  After a few years, with the ongoing exponential growth of microcomputer speed and capacity, the 400 megaflop 105 MHz Cray-XMP supercomputers, which had looked so fast and tantalizing in 1984, lost their speed and power edge to wave after wave of faster microcomputers with Intel and AMD processors.  The desktop computer on which I am writing this column has four processors, a clock speed of  2.6 GHz, and 8 GB of memory, and it could run rings around a Cray X-MP, if any were still around.

But unlike the supercomputers that it connected, NSFNET did not reach obsolescence so rapidly.  The NSF wisely decided to open NSFNET up to all academic users, whether they were supercomputer users or not, and NSFNET, now linked to ARPANET, became a principal backbone of the new Internet that came into being in the late 80s and early 90s. Thus, NSFNET turned out to be a perfectly-timed key federal investment in infrastructure that fostered a whole new generation of economic growth and technical developments for the nation and the world.

Particle-physicist-computer-jocks at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva built on the TCP/IP protocol of the Internet to create the World Wide Web (WWW), a system of computers and servers that could rapidly exchange and display information.  The arrival of WWW further boosted the role of the Internet, giving it a new focus, and revolutionizing computing and communications.  After a visit to CERN, in August, 1993, I used the UNIX workstation in my UW office to establish what was turned out to be the 3rd WWW server and web site in the State of Washington, beating out Microsoft and the UW Computer Science Department.  (However, my physics colleague, Prof. Vladimir Chaloupka, beat me by a few months, setting up web sites one and two for himself and the Particle Physics Group at the UW.)  My AV column "The Bandwidth Revolution: The Internet and WorldWideWeb" that appeared 19 years ago, in the March-1994 issue of Analog, described the web, my new server, and the Internet in detail from the perspective of the time.  At the 1993 World Science Fiction Convention in San Francisco, the largest meeting room of the WorldCon was filled to overflowing with SF fans who wanted to hear the panel discussion about the Internet (chaired by my wife Pauline) and to learn what this new WWW thing was.  By 1994 the web had become truly world wide, and it has continued to grow ever since.  The deluge of Internet-related developments that has followed: search engines, internet retailing, the dot-com boom and bust, music file sharing, You-Tube, the Arab Spring, crowd sourcing,  social networking, etc., were both inevitable and unanticipated.

Ultimately, in 1995 after 10 years at the cutting edge of digital communication, NSFNET was retired.  It had done its job, and it had been superseded by an explosion of commercial networks using newer networking hardware.  And the rest is history.

So that's how Al Gore and I invented the Internet.  Many other individuals and groups must have similar stories to tell about how they contributed to one piece or another of the vast Internet system, ant their contributions may well have been more important than ours.  But without NSFNET as a part of the NSF Supercomputer Initiative, the initial stages of the Internet would have lacked a major backbone, and development would have been much slower and perhaps would have proceeded in a different direction.

So I'll be glad to autograph the backs of your Internet-intensive iPhones and iPads and Android devices, if you ask me nicely.


References:

1980s Supercomputers:

"Cray History", Cray, the Supercomputer Company; http://www.cray.com/About/History.aspx

“The Cray X-MP”, Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cray_X-MP .

NSFNET:

"The Launch of NSFNET", NSF History; http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/nsf0050/internet/launch.htm

"National Science Foundation Network", Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Science_Foundation_Network .


SF Novels by John Cramer:  my two hard SF novels, Twistor and Einstein's Bridge, are newly released as eBooks and are available at : http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/?s=Cramer .

AV Columns Online: Electronic reprints of about 170 "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer, previously published in Analog , are available online at: http://www.npl.washington.edu/av.


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