There are a thousand stories about the origin of the internet, each with their own starting point and their own heroes. Charles Herzfeld’s tale began in 1961 on a series of tiny islands in the South Pacific. The U.S. military was test-firing a series of ballistic missiles at the island chain, known as the Kwajalein Atoll, with an array of radars and optical infrared sensors recording every re-entry. Herzfeld, the Vienna-born physicist and newly installed chief of the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s missile defense program, was trying to figure out how to make sense of the vast amount of data generated by all of those incoming missiles. The computers he had at the time weren’t up to the task.
Herzfeld, in search of solutions, asked his colleague J.C.R. Licklider out to lunch. They met at the Secretary of Defense’s Mess in the Pentagon’s E Ring, and over a series of meals talked through ideas that would transform computing forever.
Licklider, the head of of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, was already one of computer science’s leading thinkers. (“Licklider was our prophet. I signed onto his vision from the beginning,” Herzfeld says.) Not only did Licklider predict that one day “human brains and computing machines will be coupled” into a partnership that would surpass either component’s ability to process information. Licklider theorized that people could one day interact with all sorts of computers at once — even though each machine had its own programming language and its own control scheme. They would all be part of a single network.
“Most people don’t understand the experience of doing something absolutely new,” Herzfeld says, more than 50 years after the fact. “This was a new idea, and very radical.”