These two small letters heralded the beginning of online communication
An uncountable number of letters have been sent from one person to another. They have been sent through the Internet in the years since 1969. They were sent on many different platforms. These platforms included ARPANET message boards and AOL Instant Messenger. The AOL platform is now defunct.
The platforms also include the currently popular Slack. It might be hard to believe, but this communication revolution started with two letters.
It was late at night on October 29, 1969. The first message was sent over the Internet. The date is now celebrated as International Internet Day.
Two groups of researchers were working in two separate facilities. They sat before rudimentary computer terminals. They were on the phone, making yet another attempt at talking to each other. Their planned first transmission wasn’t anything too fancy. That's accoring Len Kleinrock. He headed the UCLA lab engaged in the research. That's what he told Guy Raz for NPR. But it turned out to be amazing anyways.
The UCLA researchers were trying to transmit the message “login,” as in a login command. They were trying to send it to the computer at Stanford. Charley Kline sent the initial transmission from UCLA. He said they’d tried this before with no success. This time, however, something happened.
“The first thing I typed was an L,” he told NPR. Stanford computer scientist Bill Duvall said over the phone that he’d received it. He typed the O. It also went through. Then came the G. “And then he had a bug and it crashed.”
Later that night they successfully transmitted the whole word. It took some tinkering. Then they went home to get some sleep. They had no way of knowing what would ensue because of this development.
“We should have prepared a wonderful message,” Kleinrock told Raz. It would have placed them in the tradition of discoverers who had pithy statements. These include “What hath God wrought” and “a giant leap for mankind.” Samuel Morse, Neil Armstrong and the others “were smart. They understood public relations. They had quotes ready for history.”
But “lo,” the accidentally abbreviated first transmission, would have to do. In fact, it actually works quite well. Merriam-Webster defines the word as an exclamation. It is “used to call attention or to express wonder or surprise.” It has a history of use going back as far as the 12th century.
Its predecessor is the Middle English “la.” It goes back even farther. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “la” can be found in Beowulf and the Ormulum. Its more modern incarnation is found in the King James Bible and in the first scene of Hamlet. It can also be found in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. These are just a few examples.
What the teams at UCLA and Stanford had pioneered was the ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet. It has come to contain all of the above texts as well as many, many more pedestrian statements. By the spring of 1971, it could be found at 19 research institutions. That’s according to Leo Beranek writing for the Massachusetts Historical Review. It only spread from there.