January 20, 2021

The Hackers museum is a guest post series by @the_Psychobilly

We (almost) lived a revolution the size of the great XIXth century industrial revolution.
Most of us weren’t born by that time.
We saw pioneers, gurus or even states building what we today know as “our great internets” then we eventually reached the era of our actual consume-net (pun intended).
Still, who could have foreseen that an obscure project born in a shady lab could achieve such ubiquity, and such grip on the mere reality, in less than 50 years? This is outstanding in many aspects and we can say unique in human history.


Hippies and Flower Power freaks were living their “summer of love” while protesting against the Vietnam War on Haight-Ashbury corner, the U.S. military was busy doing something else, something that would allow an entire counterculture to flourish some 40 years later.

Inside an unknown division of the DARPA, the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), engineers were designing a military digital communication mesh network able to withstand a nuclear strike. The goal was simple enough, paraphrasing Bob Marley: “You can hit some node sometime, but you can’t hit all the nodes all the time“: no-one should be able to disrupt U.S. Army coast to coast communications.
Cold War, that escalated quickly.

ARPANET December, 1969

ARPANET June, 1970

ARPANET December, 1970

ARPANET September, 1971

ARPANET March, 1972

ARPANET August, 1972

1969 (D)ARPA-NET

ARPANET Design was born, the first doodle of what a land-wide mesh communication network could be. However, the first packet communication between two remote mainframes was only established two years later, on October 29, 1969 at 10:30pm PST.
This took the appearance of a strip of punched paper (ever asked yourself what RFC1 is about?). That first IMP packet was then transmitted to an operator in charge of decoding and writing it on a post-it, no screen involved. Neat but cheap.

You had to program the IBM mainframes computer and read the output on perforated paper strips or cards…

The communication protocol used at that time was derived from the telephone system circuit network, adapted to digital communication, an ancestor of X.25. The innovation was outstanding: for the first time, a digital packet switching network had been implemented. However, the problem with circuit networks is that they are prone to transmission errors. Critically, you had to wait for the previous stream to end before you could initiate another on the same route. The information lost in translation was forever, as they are analogous to a continuous stream of data packets, or to use a simpler image: a train on predefined rails. Someone had to find a better way.

In American universities, Harvard, Berkeley, the MIT, the “computer guys”, some strange sect worshiping house-sized computers, were already talking about a network where packets could be shipped like letters. You could send them in random order, route or time and somehow make them reach their destination point. They added an address, a sender, and the previous packet pointer inside each packet header. There was also a “post office” in the end where all the fragments were assembled in the right order before being delivered to the right destination.

In that crowd of prominent figures was a humble French INRIA engineer : Louis Pouzin teaming with Gérard Le Lann.
History retained as internet inventors: Bob Kahn and Vinton Cerf but that wasn’t a so clear-cut at that time.
Everyone was sharing and publishing their lab advancements, very well in the opposite manner of nowadays patent frenzy. Pouzin coined the term “Datagram” because of its analogy to a telegram, which also displays a timestamps, sender and recipient address.



1972 the DATAGRAM

Now this began to sound familiar, UDP is an implementation of the Datagram early design. Pouzin and Le Lann built the first datagram interoperable network: the CYCLADE network. In 1972, a single datagram packet was emitted from the INRIA lab in Rocquencourt and was received on the other node in Grenoble, …producing a weird noise on a loudspeaker, something like a cicada “Krr Krr”. For the demonstration something had to be shown and there is nothing as graphic as a network packet. They named it “CIGALE” because of that noise, and later renamed it “CYCLADE“, because that sounded much more laborious.

That single packet changed the world.
In 1972, Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn were part of the International Network Working Group with Pouzin, where this early experiment had been displayed. They took a grip on this protocol design and drafted the TCP/IP protocol, The ubiquitous protocol internet had been built upon, adding a whole new batch of controls and headers. The first TCP/IP specifications were written in 1974 into RFC675. TCP/IP and UDP still live side by side today, having distinct fields of networking application.


We now use internet everyday and that feels just like using a power outlet. However, simplicity is always the product of an intensive creation process. The success of something built from scratch, with no precedence in human history is nothing short of glorious. Those pioneers should be celebrated, and those who had been omitted in the internet hall of fame shouldn’t be forgotten (such as Le Lann).

They were hacking forward.

They were sometime hacking in the most literal way, as Pouzin told me at a hacker conference — yes, he still has projects, advocating for a free Internet, like he does with the OPEN ROOT initiative — :

You know, those IBM Mainframes, you couldn’t use them the way you use a personal computer, they were leased to IBM, you paid the lease based on how much CPU cycles you used(!), and if you needed a new function, you had to ask an IBM technician to come over and implement it.
You were pretty much doomed to the userland borders.
So, well, we found a way to escalate privilege, and it allowed us to go much, much faster!

That old guy was hacking Mainframes…

In just ten years their vision had spread over the globe, transatlantic backbones were built, and the matrix, a term coined by William Gibson well before internet even could be accessed outside a university lab, took the world from underneath (more on that in a coming edition).
The BBS scene in the 80s and mass public access to internet through the infamous AOL launcher in the 90s united distant people in vibrant virtual communities. The hackers scene is one of them, and the rest is history.
To be continued…