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In the Tangled Web Of Digital History


'Where Wizards Stay Up Late' traces the birth of the Internet

By Andrew X. Pham

BUREAUCRACY is a tedious word; one that few can spell correctly and that, once misspelled, often frustrates the spell-checker as well. It depicts all sorts of monstrosities, true aberrations of nature. Couple these perversions with precise technical language describing arcane engineering concepts and what do you have? A book on the history of technology? Likely, something more effective than sleeping pills.

But out of the murk and conundrums, Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon have compiled, negotiated and stitched together the story of arguably the most significant invention of the second half of the 20th century--the Internet--in Where Wizards Stay Up Late. It was a task that first daunted Hafner, co-author of Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier and technology contributing editor for Newsweek, when Frank Heart, one of the original founding fathers of the Net, called her and in a high-pitched voice said bluntly, "I think you should write a book about the Internet. ... We're the guys that built it."

Every little guy (yours truly included) who has lurked around a university engineering building had it, that dream of doing something big, something revolutionary with nothing more than the hot fires of his neurons. Every engineering grunt who has pored over esoteric equations and programming codes had it, the hope that at least the records will credit him for the fruits of his headaches.

Frankly, these are some of the few things that made the tedium, the nuts-and-bolts work and the triple-checking tolerable. So it is no small thing when technologically inclined folks cheer this formal and public documentation of the feats of the engineers of the Internet.

Hafner and Lyon sensed the romantic ideals of the original designers and have portrayed both the men (scores of men and supposedly one woman) and their efforts reverently, almost lovingly, as though laying the foundation for legends. Like true technology connoisseurs, the authors understand the enthralling beauty of a masterfully executed engineering design and appreciate the baffling eloquence of a tightly written computer code.

Reading Where Wizards Stay Up Late, it is not difficult to conjure up surreal background images of warriors with massive powers between the ears, armored in white lab coats, wielding sharp slide rulers in battles against the dragon of bureaucracy and the dark evil of the unknown. Besieged by deadlines, crippled by gremlins, they fought heroically, summoning champions from far reaches of academia and sending them into cavernous computers to slay serpents in their lairs. And in the end, these modern knights won. They forged a new realm, a new hierarchy--then named it the Internet.

TRULY, THE INTERNET lives as the brainchild of no single person. Its herculean complexity and leap of engineering intuition lay beyond the grasp of any single mortal mind. It could never have come about without the ascension of an entire class in the tax-rich U.S. government. The Internet needed that much collective brain power and that much cash.

The rise of the nerds in the government began with the greatest technology buff in history, President Dwight Eisenhower, esteemer and believer in science and the good intentions of scientists in general.

Spurred by the Soviet launch of the first sputnik satellite in October 1957, which supposedly signaled the dismal lagging of U.S. technology, Eisenhower surrounded himself with even more scientists--all the while considering himself one of them--and formed the Advance Research Project Agency.

In 1961, ARPA got its first scientist director, Jack P. Ruina, who steered the organization into its golden era during a time when the national expenditure for science rose to a historical 3 percent of the national gross product. He was succeeded by scientist Charles Herzfeld, whose underling was scientist Bob Taylor, who in turn hired scientist-extraordinaire Larry Roberts, the eventual father of the ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet.

Although technology was linked to national defense, the military heads were neither linked to nor enlightened about technology. Scientists of the time (probably now as well) had much to say about the Neanderthal mentality of military techno visionaries. J.C.R. Licklider, the first true Internet visionary, complained that the military men harbored "asinine kinds of things" about computers and what they could do:

For example, Air Force intelligence wanted to harness huge mainframes to detect patterns of behavior among high-level Soviet officials. "The idea was that you take this powerful computer and feed it all this qualitative information, such as, 'The air force chief drank two martinis,' or 'Krushchev isn't reading Pravda on Mondays," recalled Ruina. "And the computer would play Sherlock Holmes and conclude that the Russians must be building an MX-72 missile or something like that."

If the military honchos had been in charge, and if they had an idea about how fundamental the problems were and how far away things actually were from their fantasies, they would have never funded the ARPANET project. At its most basic, the ARPANET was two computers linked by telephone lines saying "hello" to each other--and all the electrons involved in that task.

Systems architect Bob Kahn summed up the difficulties of building a packet switching network (which the Internet essentially is): "It's one thing when you plug into a socket in the wall, and electrons flow. It's another thing when you have to figure out, for every electron, which direction it takes."

MUCH OF THE book's techno gloss derives from the authors' close collaboration with the original sources. Hafner and Lyon explain in clear layman terms the logic and mechanics of both the conceptual and the physical challenges of designing and building the Internet. These descriptions have been spiced with anecdotal tidbits, such as the story of the invention of the computer mouse, the orgin of the @ sign used in email addresses, the first computer game and the first mention of emoticons and smileys on the Net.

The book is no thriller, no rapturous page turner. It lags in some crucial places, particularly in the first third of the book, where the various threads of the story come together not like streamlines in a vortex but more like the fraying ends of a rope. But as a whole package, it is a dynamic, fairly exhaustive and factually accurate account of the origins of the Internet, avoiding the usual pedantic--and phlegmatic--diction of academics and historians.

Hafner and Lyon opt for a continuous thread of narrative, guided largely by a short marketing-time window and editorial directives at Simon & Schuster; consequently, they could not include all the major players and contributors to the history of the Internet.

Although their efforts may not become the conclusive and definitive story of the origins of the Internet, Where Wizards Stay Up Late may, by default, have the last word from the horse's mouth given the advanced age of its founding fathers. If this is the case, it is also a gem because it provides a link to those who first created the space where no man had ever gone before.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon; Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $24

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From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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