‘Eureka’ moment as humble graduate offering leads to birth of internet
Steve Crocker’s 1969 paper initiated the process of defining the rules that govern virtually all data exchange
In a friend’s bathroom at 3am in April 1969, a University of California, Los Angeles graduate student by the name of Steve Crocker started to write one of the most important documents of the last century.
Although drafted in humble circumstances, Crocker’s document would set the open, inclusive tone of the next half century of internet engineering culture and initiate the process of defining the rules that govern virtually all data exchange on the planet.
Crocker was de facto leader of a small band of graduate students working on the problem of how computers at their four research centres should talk to each other on an experimental network called the Arpanet.
In the twilight hours, for fear of waking the friends he was visiting, he drafted the students’ first written output.
He had no idea of the enormity of what he was beginning.
Request For Comments, now known as RFC 1, would become the first of thousands in a series that continues to define internet standards today.
Crocker and his fellow graduate students worked on the network because most of their superiors viewed it as “a sideshow, an intrusion”.
The Arpanet had been foisted on several key research centres by the US department of defence’s advanced research projects agency (Darpa), a major funding body.
Darpa believed that networking the enormously expensive computers at major research laboratories across the country would enable new laboratories to share these machines instead of buying their own, saving the taxpayer millions of dollars in the process.
Once Darpa’s contractors had built the physical hardware for the network, the professors passed off responsibility for connecting their own computers to each other downward, to their graduate students.
“In the US,” Crocker says, “one of the common sayings is that graduate students are the second-lowest form of life on the university campus.”
However, he remembers, “nobody had told us we were in charge”. The graduates started to work without any formal authority, visiting each other’s laboratories from August 1968 onward.
Ironically for a computer networking project intended to reduce the need for physical meetings, they quickly realised that they would need to set aside a large budget for travel.
By March 1969, when they began to write down their ideas, Crocker, who had volunteered to organise the notes, started worrying about RFC 1.
Being at the bottom of the academic hierarchy and fearing opprobrium from the top made it difficult to draft authoritative documentation.
Crocker had always found writing difficult (although he is a pleasure to read), but this particular document, he reveals 44 years later, made him “very nervous that we were going to get yelled at, that we were going to get criticised for being presumptuous”.