UCL marks 30 years of e-networking

November 21, 2003

The UK's first electronic messages were full of complaints about unexpected delays, writes Steve Farrar.

Yet the bouts of lethargy that would suddenly afflict the net when Peter Kirstein was trying to send messages from University College London could not be blamed on heavy user activity - there were fewer than a dozen in the world at that time.

UCL is this week celebrating the 30th anniversary of the university becoming the first international link in the Arpanet - the internet's precursor - in 1973.

Among the pioneers who joined Professor Kirstein to recall the milestone in the communications revolution were Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who developed internet protocols a decade later in 1983.

Professor Kirstein admitted that the occasional delays were the least of his problems when he was getting the UK online. "We had tremendous difficulty getting anything agreed," he recalled.

When Professor Kirstein, supported by colleagues at the National Physical Laboratory, accepted a US offer to link to Arpanet, few people were interested.

Despite British expertise in computer networking, the Science Research Council considered that his proposal was unlikely to succeed, while government departments could see little use for it.

After a nine-month study, the British electronics company ICT concluded that Professor Kirstein would be better off flying to the US to talk to fellow scientists in person than pursuing a computer link to the US network.

But eventually, with the NPL and the Post Office behind him, he raised the money for the link - only to have his US-provided computer impounded by customs and a £5,000 VAT bill slapped on it.

Despite the setbacks, his persistence was rewarded and UCL has a special place in internet history as the provider of the UK's principal link with the US in the 1980s, with Professor Kirstein responsible for the world's second country domain after the US - .uk.

Today, the UCL professor is a key player in helping to bring satellite internet access to central Asia.

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