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The 1960s: Computers Begin to Transform the World

UNIVAC promotional film. Credit: Roger Wade Productions

An artist's illustration of a Nike missile intercepting a Soviet aircraft. Deployed throughout the United States and Western Europe in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Nike missiles were intended to stop Soviet aircraft before they could drop their nuclear bombs. The Nike systems were an example of both the high-tech nature of the U.S.-Soviet arms race and the serious threat posed by nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Credit: U. S. Army

Cold War Raging

The potential power of computers to transform the world started to become a reality in the 1960s. Computer scientists and engineers began building more powerful computers and finding new ways to use them, from helping NASA to put a man on the moon to speeding up accounting at major corporations. NSF funded the development of several academic computer centers across the country to help advance the field of computing. The pace of innovation and development was so fast that researchers needed new ways to communicate and share ideas.


A researcher checks the output of a Control Data Corporation CDC 3600 computer in the mid-1960s at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. During this time, scientists began working on networking technology that would allow these powerful but immobile machines to be used by researchers in remote areas. Credit: © University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

What About a Computer Network?

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposed linking computers together in a diffused and decentralized network so the computers could share data and researchers could use them from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The network would have no central hub that could be taken out, so even if parts of the network were damaged or destroyed, the rest of it would still function.


The ARPANET Team in 1969.
Credit: Courtesy of Frank Heart

Early Networking Experiments

The Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) took over this research in 1962. Initial research showed that computers could be linked up over long distances, but existing telecommunications infrastructure, which did not have switches or other devices capable of sending large amounts of data between multiple computers, would not be sufficient for a large-scale network.



ARPA researchers and others kept working on the problem and eventually they developed important technologies such as packet switching, which allows varying amounts of data to flow to different computers, even if there wasn't a direct connection between them. Eventually they developed a system where different "nodes" or computers on the network, would send, receive and pass on information between them. In 1969, ARPA launched a working prototype of this concept that linked up computers at four universities in the southwestern United States. The linkage of these four computers, called ARPANET, was the forerunner to the modern Internet.


Leonard Kleinrock. Credit: IEEE GLOBECOM 50th Anniversary Commemorative Lecture, courtesy of IEEE Communications Society


Vint Cerf and the Development of ARPANET

Vint Cerf worked on the ARPANET project in the 1960s as a graduate student at UCLA. He and his fellow students, working under the tutelage of Len Kleinrock, worked as a team to work out kinks in the proposed system. "We were just rank amateurs," Cerf says "and we were expecting that some authority would finally come along and say, 'Here's how we are going to do it.' And nobody ever came along." This adventurous spirit drove Cerf and his fellow students to work hard with the hopes of building something new and exciting.


Vint Cerf. Credit: Cliff Braverman, Dena Headlee, Lauren Kitchen and Dana Cruikshank for National Science Foundation


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