'Internet van' helped drive evolution of the Web

Few have probably ever heard of it, but a broken-down van in California was a stepping stone on the road to the Internet as we know it. Photos: Computer History Museum celebrates the 'Internet Van'

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--If not for this nondescript, gray van with the letters "SRI" painted on the side, you might not be reading this article right now.

Parked feet from the entrance of the Computer History Museum here in the heart of Silicon Valley, the vintage van is being feted at a celebration marking the very first true Internet connection.

The first Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)-based transmission between three separate networks--Arpanet, packet radio, and satellite--was made possible by the van, which was built by the research and development agency SRI International. It was driven for the first time on November 22, 1977. The same van was the key to the first packet radio network--that is, the first mobile digital radio network--a precursor to Wi-Fi and the other wireless networks of today.

The van "represents what a Land Rover does in Africa," said Vinton Cerf, who headed the project for the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency. "It helped us explore terrain that didn't have any roads."

Video:'s Kara Tsuboi introduces the engineers behind the nondescript truck played a role in the first wireless Net connection.

Filled to the brim with some of the most advanced technology of its day, the "Internet van," as it has since been nicknamed, would drive up and down Interstate 280 in the San Francisco Bay Area, broadcasting data at 100 to 400 kilobits per second. Data was sent from the van to various points around the world, including Los Angeles; Cambridge, Mass.; Sweden; and England--through telephone lines, and routed between satellites.

The data traveled a geographic distance of only 400 miles, from the van near San Francisco to the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute in Los Angeles. But to get there, that information traveled more than 100,000 miles through the three separate networks--up and down to several satellites and over phone lines to different nodes on the network.

At that time, Cerf, who among other things helped invent the architecture for the Internet as we know it today and the TCP/IP protocols, was in charge of technical oversight of the entire project to bring the three networks together. And there was no guarantee, of course, that the first transmission would succeed. "As an engineer, you're always surprised when a program you write actually works," he said. When the first bit of data was sent there and back without any problems, his reaction was a bit of shock. "I said, 'Holy cow! That actually worked!'"

What was revolutionary at the time was that this whole process took a half-second for the bit's round trip and that the network was reliable and didn't lose any information. By comparison, the Arpanet at that time could transmit information one way in 100 milliseconds.

The head of the project for SRI, Donald Nielson, said it wasn't apparent in the late 1970s that riding around in the van was an event of any particular significance. Put in perspective of SRI's research over the past few decades, "this was not necessarily high on our list of accomplishments," said Nielson, now retired from SRI. Rather, it was "just another demonstration" of the technology they were working on, which they knew was important. E-mail had already been introduced in 1971, and by 1977, it was clear to all involved that the idea of digital networking would be a part of their future. "We knew that was going to change the world."

It wasn't until 1996, when an editor with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers called to ask about the first transmission on that November day in 1977, that Nielson realized that driving the beat-up van around the Bayshore Freeway was a seminal event in the advancement of the Internet.

The van has been almost completely refurbished, but still isn't drivable. It's been outfitted with much of the original technology, including two packet radios, each taking up a cubic foot of space and costing roughly $50,000 each. The radios in the van now are the only two still in existence, said Nielson. The vehicle sat virtually ignored for a decade or two.

With four flat tires, a disintegrated steering wheel, and much of the technology that once resided in it gutted, Nielson had it all put back together for a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Internet. It was hauled from Moffett Field near Sunnyvale, Calif., the former site of the Computer History Museum, to a convention in San Jose, Calif. That others were interested in this tiny part of the Internet's history was surprising, Nielson said. "It was kind of a big carcass," he laughed.

Perhaps poetically, the van now sits exactly one mile from the sprawling campus of Google, arguably one of the most important technology companies today, and one that would be nonexistent if not for the work of Nielson, Cerf, and many, many others.

"A lot of people think the Internet just happened," said Cerf, who now works as the chief Internet evangelist for Google. "But it was a lot of hard work."