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The internet was born 50 years ago with a nonsense message

The first transmission via the brand new Arpanet was sent on this date in 1969, but it didn't go as planned.

 A blackboard in UCLA's Boelter Hall depicting equations and schematics that led to the ARPANET in 1969.
Sean Brenner/UCLA

What we call the internet today, with its power to move elections, economies and Hyundai Elantras to our designated Uber pickup location, can be traced back to a tiny network with just four nodes: at the University of California, Los Angeles; the Stanford Research Institute; UC Santa Barbara; and the University of Utah. The first message sent over that network, on Oct. 29, 1969, was just two letters: LO.

I'd like to tell you that message was written to build suspense before following it up seconds later with a dramatic "...AND BEHOLD, THE INTERNET IS HERE AND THE WORLD IS FOREVER CHANGED!" That's certainly the sort of introduction the birth of the internet deserves.

But what really happened is that UCLA student programmer Charley Kline sat down at an SDS Sigma 7 host computer and attempted to log in to the Stanford Research Institute SDS 940 host system via the brand new internetwork sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as the Arpanet. Kline was attempting to type the LOGIN command, but the system crashed after just the first two letters. 

The problem that caused the crash was fixed later in the evening, but we're still left with the bizarre "LO" as the first message ever transmitted online. The Arpanet was a success and it laid the foundation for what would eventually become the internet. 

The hard copy record of the first message sent via the Arpanet.


Of course it would take a few more decades before the online world would find any commercial applications, first as an odd assortment of newsgroups, bulletin boards, file transfer protocols and relay chats accessed primarily by nerds in the know. Things evolved through the '80s with commercial services like CompuServe, Prodigy and finally the behemoth AOL leading us into the '90s and the mainstream. The mid '90s saw the World Wide Web and email become the dominant online protocols, and we haven't looked back since. 

Lo and behold, we were shown the digital promised land a half century ago today. And it was good. Mostly. There are still, um, a few problems