Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com’s Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — There is so much the internet provides us on a daily basis. It’s helped us connect with anyone at any time, helped us receive information faster than ever and it’s a great entertainment tool.
Given how much it has drastically changed our lives, it’s a little wild to think one of the most influential meetings in how we live now happened at a Utah ski resort — OK, perhaps it isn’t as weird to think about now, given the state’s booming tech sector. But it wasn’t just that meeting. The University of Utah also had a key role in a project that was a precursor to the internet 50 years ago in December 1969.
Utah wasn’t initially involved in pioneering the first network. It all starts with Leonard Kleinrock, who wrote a doctorial thesis that theorized the possibility of linking computers while he was at MIT in 1961. The idea of using a network of computers grew from there.
The development of the computer networks was happening during the height of the Cold War, so it’s no surprise the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency took a large role developing networks end beginning in the mid-1960s. The agency had a goal to link a set of computers together from different locations. As Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, the military wanted a computer communications system that didn’t have a central core, a headquarters or base operations that could be completely knocked out in an attack.
Flashforward to 1968, when key computer science and U.S. government officials met at Rustler Lodge at Alta Ski Resort. Very little was kept about this meeting. However, officials did map together what became the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, according to the University of Utah.
The following year, on Oct. 29, 1969, this idea was put to the test. Researchers at UCLA attempted to send a message to a computer at Stanford. The first message would have been “login” but only the “l” and “o” made it before the computers crashed. Once the computers were rebooted, researchers were finally able to send that message.
The University of California at Santa Barbara then became the third school in the program between late October and December.
So how did the U. get involved in this? Utah brought in David Evans to be the school’s first computer science chair during the 1960s. Evans helped put the school on the map, especially in the world of computer graphics, said Mary Hall, a professor at the University of Utah’s School of Computing.
“This project was happening as computer science is becoming a field and the very first computer science departments were being formed,” she said.
Hall explained that the Department of Defense funded Utah’s computing program at the time, as it did for several other schools in the country. So as the Department of Defense looked for universities to run this experiment, they had a list of schools to choose from based on who they were funding. They also tried to find diverse programs using different computers that were interested in participating in the program.
I think they knew it would be transformative, but I don’t think what that transformation would be.
–Mary Hall, a professor at the University of Utah’s School of Computing
Utah checked all those boxes, especially as a graphics and images leader. It would become a part of the first interstate communication within ARPANET in December 1969. Within the next 15 years, there were more than 200 computers connected across the country.
“If you look at ARPANET, it grew a little bit at a time at first, and then it grew really quickly once the technology was sound,” Hall said.
ARPANET was retired in 1990. Tim Berners-Lee had created the world wide web just one year prior. In fact, the same year ARPANET ended, Berners-Lee wrote the first web client and server.
However, ARPANET still played a large role in technology as we know it today since it set the table for the internet.
“Initially it was a way to link people in research; people who are trying to do complex things on computers together and make their jobs easier,” Hall said. “Once computers were connected, people’s imaginations were sparked. … That’s its legacy. It was a step in this direction. It was very forward-looking. I think they knew it would be transformative, but I don’t think what that transformation would be.”
The University of Utah plans to celebrate ARPANET and the university’s legacy with it as the 50th anniversary approaches. Utah. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Banjo CEO Damien Patton and University of Utah President Ruth Watkins are among those scheduled to speak at an anniversary celebration event at the Robert H. and Katharine B. Garff Building on the university’s campus Monday evening.
The event is free to the public, but event officials say space is limited. More details can be found here.