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Beginning of the Internet commemorated in new UCLA museum

Arpanet Interface Message Processor - device used to send the first message on the prototype network that would later become the internet.
Arpanet Interface Message Processor - device used to send the first message on the prototype network that would later become the internet.

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In a small computer lab in a forgotten building at UCLA, Professor Leonard Kleinrock and a group of graduate students sent the very first message over what would become the Internet, back in 1969. Since that milestone, the room was in continuous use as a classroom, and its significance to history was all but forgotten. But now the room has been transformed into a re-creation of the ARPA lab, complete with the original equipment from the '60s and period furnishings to match.

The Interface Message Processor, or IMP as engineers fondly call it, stands in the same spot in 3420 Boelter Hall today as it did in 1969. It functioned much like a modem, sending messages from the host computer, an SDS Sigma 7, through the network to an IMP in a remote location, which relayed it to another host computer.

During the '60s, UCLA was chosen as the first node of what was known as ARPANET, a precursor to the Internet funded by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). UCLA set up the very first network connection between their IMP and the IMP at Stanford Research Institute in northern California.

On October 29, 1969, Kleinrock and his team undertook a simple task to test the network – sending a login request from their host computer to the host computer at SRI.

Kleinrock and his student, Charley Kline, had an engineer at SRI on the phone as they typed the first letters of the message. They got as far as L-O, and then the system crashed.

"So the very first message sent over the internet was 'lo,' as in 'lo and behold,'" said Kleinrock.

It's a far cry from the first telegraph message composed by Samuel Morse, "What God hath wrought," or the other famous dispatch from the 1969 moon landing.

"Those guys were smart," said Kleinrock. "They prepared those messages. We had nothing. But the message we generated by accident – lo – was about the shortest, most succinct, most powerful and most prophetic message you can imagine."

And thus the communication that would end up giving us the modern shorthand of emails and Twitter was born.

But unlike the moon landing, there were no cameras or reporters to document this milestone for posterity. The only record that exists is a hastily written entry in the lab log book.

That entry is all that would remain if it weren't for UCLA graduate student Brad Fidler, a PhD candidate studying the history of science. In 2008 he went looking for the birthplace of the Internet at UCLA but found nothing.

The room was being used as an undergraduate lab without so much as a plaque to commemorate its significance in Internet history. "For a long time nobody appreciated the value of this heritage," said Kleinrock.

But Fidler spearheaded a move to reclaim the room and transform it into a mini-museum and archive, with old documents on the founding of ARPANET and period furnishings from 1969.

"There's not many times in history where you can say, 'That's the place where it happened,' but to find the birthplace, the primordial location, has enormous value for people," said Kleinrock.

Visitors to the Kleinrock Internet Heritage Site and Archive will be able to see the original IMP that transmitted the message back in 1969 and a period-appropriate slideshow about how ARPANET worked, along with vintage teletype machines, desks, chairs, pens and staplers from 1969 UCLA classrooms. Even the walls have been painted the exact same shade of institutional minty green they were in former years.

The museum is located on UCLA's campus, at 3420 Boelter Hall. It can be visited by appointment until its grand opening this October.