Geek Trivia: They say it's your birthday

On what date did the first communication between two router-linked computers occur?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is out for some extended dorkification at his local science-fiction convention, but we couldn't let the 10th anniversary of Windows 95 pass by without comment. Thus, we've pulled this Classic Geek about another infamous IT anniversary, which originally ran on May 21, 2003, for your trivia pleasure.

While few would argue that the Internet is one of the most influential and revolutionary technologies in modern history, at least one aspect of the Internet's biography is still open for debate—its birthday.

Conceived as a project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and called ARPANET, the modern Internet evolved through slow refinement and incorporation of new technologies, which makes pinning down an exact date of birth more an exercise in definition than anything else.

To those who claim that the Internet and the World Wide Web are synonymous, then the Internet/Web was born on April 30, 1993, when the scientists at CERN declared that Web technology, including the Mosaic browser, would be freely available to everyone, with no fees being payable to CERN.

On the other hand, many people see the Web as separate from the Net, so one must look back even further—perhaps to Jan. 1, 1983, when use of the Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) became mandatory for Internet-compliant systems. On that day, the Network Control Protocol was officially retired (though it took some sites several extra months to complete the switch), and the TCP/IP became the global standard. However, while this event gave the Internet its format, this protocol change only marked an upgrade to—rather than the creation of—a global network.

Then there are the true purists who believe that Sept. 2, 1969, is the Internet's real birthday. On that date, the world's first router (then called an Interface Message Processor) employing packet switching technology connected two computers.

However, potential communication and actual communication are very different things. As such, other computer history buffs have suggested an alternate date for the Internet's birthday—the day when two router-linked computers originally "talked" to each other, making Internet communication real.


On what date did the first two router-linked computers communicate, a date considered by some to be the birthday of the Internet?

On Oct. 20, 1969, the refrigerator-sized Interface Message Processor, which worked as the world's first packet-switching router, communicated with a computer at UCLA, seven weeks after they were first connected.

On that October day, the UCLA computer managed to send exactly two characters across the connection to a second computer at Stanford before the entire system crashed under the strain. The two successfully transmitted characters were the letters L and O—which some have gleefully dubbed the first Netspeak contraction for "hello."

The UCLA team actually intended to spell out the word LOG, which the Stanford system would recognize and then complete as the command LOGIN. (A second attempt made later that day was more successful.)

It's difficult to categorize the events of Oct. 20, 1969. Some call this date the Internet's real birthday, while others consider what transpired to be the world's first e-mail communication. Whether you agree with these assessments or not depends entirely on your definition of what comprises the Internet and e-mail.

For its part, UCLA commemorated the Internet's 30th birthday on Sept. 2, 1999. In the end, no matter how you look at it, there's little doubt that Oct. 20, 1969, is a landmark date in Internet history. Birthday or no, it's the day the Internet said its first words.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the August 3 edition of Geek Trivia, "Energetic pursuits." TechRepublic member Sysop-dr took issue with my nuclear history.

"You state 'Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, home to Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1 (EBR-1)—the world's first nuclear power plant,' but this is not true. A power reactor is a reactor that produces electric power. (I know—I work for AECL, Atomic Energy Canada Limited.) And the first 'power' reactor built was our NPD, Nuclear Power Demonstrator, here in Ontario, Canada. The EBR-1 was designed for a non-power purpose."

Well, I hate to counter-quibble, but according to our friends at the Wikipedia, "Electricity was generated for the first time by a nuclear reactor on Dec. 20, 1951 at the EBR-I experimental station. On June 27, 1954, the world's first nuclear power plant that generated electricity for commercial use was officially connected to the Soviet power grid at Obninsk, Kaluga Oblast, Russia."

Moreover, AECL's own Web site refers to the NPD as "Canada's first nuclear power plant"—not the world's—and that it went online June 4, 1962, almost eight years after the Soviet reactor.

Still, it's always nice to hear from a sysop at a nuclear power plant, especially one from the venerable Chalk River Labs. Keep up the good work, and keep those quibbles coming.

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia e-newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox