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Envisioning a global computer network

The Story

Until the 1960s, the idea of a global information network was strictly the domain of science fiction writers. Early computers were enormous, expensive monstrosities, and the idea of linking them together seemed absurd. But by 1970, computers are already prevalent in government, business and academia. ARPANET, precursor to the internet, has been online for a year, networking a handful of major computers across America. While most Canadians have never even seen a computer, a few visionaries recognize that computer networks will change our world completely. One such person is Graham Spry, a Canadian journalist, diplomat and political activist who was instrumental in bringing public broadcasting to Canada. In this interview, Spry tells CBC Radio's Warren Davis that a new age of communication is dawning. He believes computers will not only change the way we get information and buy products, but will alter the way people work and live.

Medium: Radio
Program: Your Two Bucks Worth
Broadcast Date: Oct. 17, 1970
Guest(s): Graham Spry
Host: Warren Davis
Duration: 3:03

Did You know?

• The push to networking computers began after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The United States feared a nuclear attack, and the U.S. Department of Defence created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, later renamed DARPA, or "Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency") to try to regain technological superiority.

• ARPA hired MIT's J.C.R. Licklider to work on information processing. In 1962 Licklider wrote about a "Galactic Network" (a deliberately whimsical name; some sources say "Intergalactic Network") where computers around the world could be interlinked to share access to programs and data. Others, including Paul Baran of RAND Corporation, were working on the idea of decentralized military communications that could survive a nuclear attack. Even if several strands of the web were destroyed, the computers would still find a route to connect to each other.

• There were two keys to this strategy. There was a need for each computer to be linked to other computers, so that information could travel any number of paths. Data would also have to be broken up into separate smaller parcels or "packets." The packet switching theory was developed by MIT's Leonard Kleinrock.

• Lawrence Roberts, also of MIT, networked two computers over a telephone line in 1965. He then moved to ARPA and in 1967 presented "Plan for the ARPANET," a proposed military computer network that started with four southwestern U.S. university computers. ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, came online in 1969. By 1972 it had grown to 37 networked computers.

• UCLA student Charlie Klein is often credited as being the first person to send a message over the internet, on Oct. 29, 1969. That message was the word "LOGIN", a command that let him remotely access a computer at the Stanford Research Institute. Some sources say that the system crashed when he reached the letter "G."

• Graham Spry was a socialist political activist, businessman and broadcaster. In 1930, Spry and Alan Plaunt founded the Canadian Radio League to lobby the federal government to implement public broadcasting in Canada. In 1932 they convinced Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to create the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), which in 1936 became the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

• In 1931 Graham Spry also co-founded the League for Social Reconstruction, a group that pushed for radical social and economic reforms to pull Canada out of the Great Depression. He chaired the Ontario Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and made two unsuccessful bids to become a member of Parliament. Spry moved to England to work for Standard Oil and assist the British government during the Second World War. He returned to Ottawa in the 1960s and died in 1983.

• Not everyone has been as prescient about the impact of computers as Graham Spry. In 1943 Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM, is reputed to have predicted, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." According to Kevin Maney, author of The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM, there is no evidence that Watson ever made such a statement.


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