The real story of how I helped invent the Internet

Copyright 2002 David C. Walden
(drafted in about October 2000; revised December 2001)

After high school, I started college in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, but left after one semester: too much card playing and not enough design talent. My high school guidance counselor used his influence to help me register after the deadline for the second term at Diablo Valley College (a junior college near my home town of Antioch, CA), where I became a civil engineering major. After three terms at DVC, I transferred to San Francisco State College for my junior year and switched my major to structural engineering because I hadn't been finding civil engineering to be engaging. However, structural also didn't engage me, so with three terms to go I switched to being a math major because it was the only subject I had been taking all along and could still graduate in four years, my only remaining goal from college. I got quite a few Cs and Ds in math because I was mostly playing bridge, but got enough As and Bs in the electives and other required courses outside my major and graduated on time in four years but with a higher grade point average overall than in my major.

When I switched to math, I had no idea what I would do to make a living since I clearly couldn't do it in math. However, in the second term my junior year I took a numerical analysis course in the math department, and it required a project done on the school's tiny IBM 1620 computer. As with the rest of my math courses, I didn't study; finally, I had to find the computer center if I was going to avoid failing the course. I stumbled into the computer center and found what seemed to be my destiny. The wonderful news was that computer programming was fun and there were no requirements for being a computer programmer in those early days. I spent the rest of my time at San Francisco State spending longs hours hanging out (even sleeping) in the computer center in between playing bridge.

As graduation neared I still had no idea what to do for a job, but saw an advertisement for MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the back of a copy of Scientific American. I knew nothing about MIT Lincoln Lab, but I got some references from a couple of friendly faculty members and one student friend posing as an adult reference and sent a resume to Lincoln Lab. MIT Lincoln Lab phoned and told me they were interested in interviewing me but couldn't pay to fly me to Massachusetts for an interview, but if I could get back there, I should stop by (in those days at Lincoln Lab, computer people weren't considered to be real scientists and engineers like physicists and electrical engineers and so weren't worthy of having interviewing trips paid for). So I gave up on Lincoln Lab, until one day NSA invited me to come to Baltimore for an interview with them. I accepted the NSA interview to get me closer to Boston and phoned Lincoln Lab to ask if they would pay my way for the remaining trip to Boston if I could get as far as Baltimore. Lincoln Lab told me, "No," but they would pay to put me up overnight in a hotel if I got to Boston. So I paid my own way from Baltimore to Boston and finally got interviewed at MIT Lincoln Lab. I still didn't know what Lincoln Lab was, but MIT sounded good.

At Lincoln Lab, they called me on the fake reference, but I was eager and energetic and they offered me a job anyway, telling me I would have to pay for my own move to Boston because they didn't pay for moving for (second class) people who were computer programmers. So I paid my own way to Boston.

At MIT Lincoln Lab I found myself in what turned out to be one of the country's great research centers among many very smart people who taught me lots. But three years later my boss got recruited to go to Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc. (BBN) in Cambridge to lead a division. He had treated me like a first class citizen, but with him gone the second class citizenship of "just a programmer" became visible again, so I followed him to BBN a few months later (I was the youngest in his group at Lincoln Lab and has the least to lose by moving --- eventually many from the group followed).

At BBN, a year later, my boss assigned me as the first computer programmer on a project to bid on a contract to build ARPANET, the original Internet. I was part of a very small team. Since the job was clearly over my head, we recruited my programming mentor from the group at Lincoln Lab to join us, we bid on the contract, and we won. (This is all described in the history books, like Hafner's Where Wizards Stay Up Late.) Thus, I found myself one of the original six or eight people on the BBN team which was one of five or six small teams of people working together on creating the prototype Internet. I had stumbled into becoming, in a very real sense, the first programmer on what has become the Internet. Over the years I became fairly well known in the Internet community and rose in the management ranks at BBN, having good professional and business success, partly I think because I was "one of the original Internet people." Anyone who had participated in the invention of the Internet had to be pretty capable, right?

Epilog: A few years ago, in the face increased pressure on funding from taxes, San Francisco State College began to try to organize an alumni association, like the private colleges have, to raise money from alumni. As part of that activity they created an Alumni Hall of Fame and looked around for what graduates who could be inducted into it, such as Danny Glover and Annette Benning. San Francisco State had never had well known math department, mostly preparing high school math teachers and applied mathematicians for industry (which is not to say it wasn't a quality math department). It appears to me that, in scouting for someone from their department that they could nominate for the Alumni Hall of Fame, the math department stumbled on Stan Mazor and me, who were both there at the same time. Stan was one of the early people at Intel where he was co-inventor of the 4-bit micro-computer; as already described, I did badly in math at San Francisco State but lucked into the beginnings of the Internet. Thus, in 1999 Stan and I were inducted into the San Francisco State Alumni Hall of Fame representing the math department. I'm sure all the real math graduates from San Francisco State must have been pretty steamed at my selection.

That's the story. It is good to have the luck to be in the right place at the right time, where little is previously known about a field and you can help invent it without valid prior qualifications.