The Real Novelty of the ARPANET

Setting the scene:

The Washington Hilton stands near the top of a small rise about a mile and a half northeast of the National Mall. Its two white-painted modern facades sweep out in broad semicircles like the wings of a bird. The New York Times, reporting on the hotel’s completion in 1965, remarked that the building looks “like a sea gull perched on a hilltop nest.”

The hotel hides its most famous feature below ground. Underneath the driveway roundabout is an enormous ovoid event space known as the International Ballroom, which was for many years the largest pillar-less ballroom in DC. In 1967, the Doors played a concert there. In 1968, Jimi Hendrix also played a concert there. In 1972, a somewhat more sedate act took over the ballroom to put on the inaugural International Conference on Computing Communication, where a promising research project known as the ARPANET was demonstrated publicly for the first time.

It turns out that the most important innovation of the ARPANET isn’t obvious in hindsight:

So what I’m trying to drive home here is that there is an important distinction between statement A, “the ARPANET connected people in different locations via computers for the first time,” and statement B, “the ARPANET connected computer systems to each other for the first time.” That might seem like splitting hairs, but statement A elides some illuminating history in a way that statement B does not.

The Real Novelty of the ARPANET

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