These Two Small Letters Heralded the Beginning of Online Communication

Their message is far more profound in retrospect than it was at the time

This paper log for Interface Message Processor shows the very first online communication. Wikimedia Commons

An uncountable number of letters have been sent from one person to the other via the internet in the years since 1969–in ARPANET message boards, the recently-deceased AOL Instant Messenger and currently-in-vogue Slack, to name a few platforms. Hard to believe, but this communication revolution started with two letters.

Late at night on October 29, 1969, today celebrated as International Internet Day, the first message was sent over the Internet. Two groups of researchers in two separate facilities sat before rudimentary computer terminals, on the phone, making yet another attempt at talking to each other. Their planned first transmission wasn’t anything too fancy, Len Kleinrock, who headed the UCLA lab engaged in the research, told Guy Raz for NPR. But it turned out to be amazing anyways.

The UCLA researchers were trying to transmit the message “login,” as in a login command, to the computer at Stanford. Charley Kline, who sent the initial transmission from UCLA, said they’d tried this before with no success. This time, however, something happened. “The first thing I typed was an L,” he told NPR. Stanford computer scientist Bill Duvall said over the phone that he’d received it. He typed the O: it also went through. Then came the G: “And then he had a bug and it crashed.”

Later that night, after some more tinkering, they successfully transmitted the whole word. Then they went home to get some sleep, having no way of knowing what would ensue because of this development.

"We should have prepared a wonderful message," Kleinrock told Raz. It would have placed them in the tradition of discoverers who had pithy statements– “What hath God wrought,” “a giant leap for mankind,” etcetera. Samuel Morse, Neil Armstrong and the others “were smart. They understood public relations. They had quotes ready for history."

But “lo,” the accidentally abbreviated first transmission, would have to do, and in fact actually works quite well. Merriam-Webster defines the word as an exclamation “used to call attention or to express wonder or surprise” that has a history of use going back as far as the 12th century. Its predecessor, the Middle English “la,” goes back even farther. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “la” can be found in Beowulf and the Ormulum, amongst other works. Its more modern incarnation is found in the King James Bible, in the first scene of Hamlet and in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, to name a few examples.   

What the teams at UCLA and Stanford had pioneered was the ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, which has come to contain all of the above texts as well as many, many more pedestrian statements. By the spring of 1971, it could be found at 19 research institutions, writes Leo Beranek for the Massachusetts Historical Review, and it’s only spread from there. 

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