Internet Pioneers and the Fathers of Invention

Friends from way back: Steve Crocker, right, was Vinton Cerf's Best Man at his wedding.

Judging by the conversation between Internet gurus Steve Crocker and Vinton Cerf, the world as we know it began about fifty years ago. That's when men like Crocker and Cerf began to figure out ways to break communication out of the box and into a brave, new world of global contact. In some ways, this IS your father's internet, or at least the story of how it all began. Cue the dial-up modem....

Friends for more than fifty years beginning in high school, "Vint was the good student, and I was always getting into trouble," said Crocker at the beginning of the spirited conversation, "and one of the ways of getting into trouble in those days was to find the nearest computer, as they weren't so prevalent." Self-described "math geeks," one day the two high schoolers got permission to use a computer at UCLA, but unfortunately the building was locked. This is where the "getting into trouble" comes into play as an open second floor window led to a kind of geek break-in. That was 1961. The rest, as they say, is history.

Throughout the evening, Crocker and Cerf narrated the life and times of the internet, and stories of the men (That's one question I should have asked: what about the women?) who thought computers held the keys to the future. In 1963, M.I.T. Professor J.C.R. Licklider, a psychologist, believed that computers could be used for non-numeric purposes and for building networks to connect computers and people together. He formed a working group with the very space-age name, the "Intergalactic Computer Network." Crocker and Cerf took us through the stages of DARPA, (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Department of Defense agency responsible for many developments in technology, leading to the birth of the internet.

In one of my favorite stories--and there were many in the evening--a congratulatory note came from Senator Ted Kennedy's office in Massachusetts to a Boston company being awarded a noteworthy government contract for an interface project: "Congratulations on your ecumenical effort in building an Interfaith Message Processor." Amen.

This presentation, celebrating the spirit of invention, is in conjunction with the exhibition currently on view, The Great American Hall of Wonders. If you weren't able to attend the talk, you can watch it in its entirety.