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
In 1984 I was a
Professor of Physics at the University
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
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.
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
Our Committee met at a
variety of locations in the early months of 1984, at Washington, DC
, O'Hare Airport, UC Irvine, and the
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
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.
at the CERN Laboratory in
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.
"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 .
"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 .
Columns Online: Electronic
reprints of about 170 "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer,
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