40 Years After Sparking the Internet, BBN’s Long Search for a Home Ends…At Home

9/2/09Follow @wroush

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design acoustic systems for performance halls and office and apartment buildings, as well as noise-dampening systems for jet engines.

In 1957 BBN hired MIT computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider, who persuaded Beranek to spend $25,000 to buy the company’s first computer, an LGP-30 from typewriter manufacturer Royal. Soon after, BBN bought the very first machine built by Digital Equipment, the PDP-1, for $150,000, and Licklider used it to demonstrate the first time-sharing systems. BBN employees went on to explore the uses of computers for managing medical records and libraries, and wrote some of the earliest programs for pattern recognition and natural language processing. Licklider was the first among a parade of computer luminaries who eventually passed through the company, including John McCarthy (the inventor of the term “artificial intelligence” and the developer of the Lisp programming language), Marvin Minsky (co-founder, with McCarthy, of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), Seymour Papert (the developer of Logo and the co-creator, with Minsky, of the idea of artificial neural networks), and John Seely Brown (later director of Xerox PARC).

In their 1998 book Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, writers Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon called the BBN of the 1950s and 1960s Cambridge’s “third university,” after Harvard and MIT. “BBN became one of the most attractive places to work in the Boston area,” they wrote. “Some people even considered it better than the universities because there was no teaching obligation and no worry over earning tenure. It was a rarefied environment—the cognac of the research business.”

In 1969 a team led by BBN engineer Frank Heart built the first Interface Message Processors, modified Honeywell minicomputers that were delivered to computer science laboratories at UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, and other locations and became the backbone of the Arpanet. The packet-switching model enabled by the IMPs—in which messages are broken into individually addressed packets that travel separate paths over a network—has become today’s dominant form of data and voice communication.

The world also has BBN to thank (or curse) for e-mail. In 1971 BBN principal scientist Ray Tomlinson combined several programs for sending, receiving, and copying files across machines on the Arpanet into the first working e-mail system; he chose the @ sign, a little-used key on the teletype machines of the day, to separate addressees’ login names from the names of their host machines.

BBN went on to be involved in numerous technological milestones, including packet-switched satellite communications, acoustic analysis of the Watergate and Kennedy assassination tapes, and the development of the Transmission Control Protocol, which handles the breakdown and reassembly of data packets and became one of the technical foundations for the Internet. The Internet domain name bbn.com was the second ever registered, in 1985. Yet while BBN won a series of hefty defense research contracts to investigate areas like speech recognition, it went through a series of financial … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.genotrope.com Tom Summit

    Great article Wade. I really enjoy stories about Boston tech legacy companies and their contributions to the marketplace.

    xBBN employees also contributed to startups like Wellfleet and VideoServer.

    My wish list for future articles: Apollo, Wellfleet, Powersoft, Symbolics(first .com domain).

  • http://www.scheffelaar.com Jos Scheffelaar

    I may be nit-picking, but debt-loaded Genuity was actually not acquired by Level 3 Communications as stated in the beginning of the article. For $137 million, Level 3 only acquired the assets and operations of Genuity, after which Genuity Inc. was allowed to die peacefully.

    Former Genuity employee

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