Robin Sloan on the World of Ajax Penumbra: ARPANET!

We’ve built you buildings; we’ve dug you tunnels. But today, for the next in our Ajax Penumbra 1969–inspired posts, the topic is networks, and so we had to call in an expert. Watch out: It could get a little nerdy in here. Because today we’re handing the keyboard to the man himself: Robin Sloan.

I missed the Mother of All Demos by a year.

Doing research for Ajax Penumbra 1969—before I knew it was going to be 1969—I made a long list of interesting events that I thought I might weave into the fabric of young Penumbra’s life. One of these events was the computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart’s legendary demo in December 1968 (see bizarrely mesmerizing video above), in San Francisco’s Civic Center, where, in a little under two hours, he basically previewed the next three decades of computing. Up on a huge projection screen, his audience saw, for the first time: windows, hypertext, video conferencing, and—of course—the mouse.

Reading about this, I thought: wouldn’t it be cool if Ajax Penumbra was in that audience?

Well, the timing didn’t quite line up—at least not if I wanted to include the other events on my list. It was like solving a system of equations; I couldn’t maximize one thing without minimizing another. Ajax Penumbra couldn’t be at that demo. It just didn’t make sense.

And besides: if I pushed the timeline forward, he would be around for something even better . . .

On October 29, 1969, a UCLA student named Charley Kline, working on a hulking mainframe called the Sigma, connected to a remote computer and began to type a simple command: LOGIN. He got as far as L-O before the system crashed.


The remote computer, 300 miles north, was an SDS 940 at the Stanford Research Institute—the very same machine upon which Engelbart had run his pathbreaking demo. When he finally managed to complete it, Kline’s command constituted the first transmission over the first link in what would become the ARPANET, the precursor to the internet.

Penumbra had just begun working at the 24-hour bookstore when all of this happened. As readers of Ajax Penumbra 1969 know, it was his erstwhile college roommate, Claude Novak, who told him about it—who lent him his first science fiction book, who had come to California to enroll in Stanford’s nascent computer science program and who then went to work with Engelbart at Stanford Research International.

Ajax Penumbra wasn’t quite present at the creation, but he was awfully close. Close enough to smell the fumes. Close enough to see the possibilities.


Further viewing:

The Rise And Fall of the ARPANET (1969-1989) (This is where we found the Smithsonian’s crazy gif of ARPANET’s development between December 1969 and March 1977.)

The Mother of All Demos (announcement)

Posted 10/10/13 Posted October 10, 2013