Friday, March 1, 2013

Amazing Firsts in the History of Computers

A modern computer user accesses video, email, and spam every single day; it's an accepted part of a connected life. The Internet is now a vital part of business, social relationships, and politics; it's impossible to imagine how we ever got along without it. But computer and Internet technology as we know it is still quite new, on a historic scale. While many things are ubiquitous now, they were invented by someone who made the first leaps ahead. Here are some of those firsts in computer history.

The First Webcam
Webcams have revolutionized how we interact with others online, putting a human face onto a medium that was historically confined to text-only communications. Dial-up web connections couldn't possibly handle a live video stream; web browsers didn't gain the ability to display images until 1993. The first web cam was installed at the University of Cambridge in 1991. It showed a still image close-up of the laboratory's coffee pot in the hallway just outside of the "Trojan Room"; the image would display three times per minute and reduce the users monitor resolution to 128X128 grayscale color.
Like many inventions, the webcam was born out of necessity; employees working in other areas of the building would often take a break to get some coffee, only to arrive and find the pot totally empty. Frustrated at having to make frequent and pointless trips, some of the engineers set up a camera, pointed it at the coffee pot, and connected it to a video capture card on an Acorn Archimedes computer. The camera was connected to the Internet in 1993, making it visible to thousands of people online; the Trojan Room coffee pot became an early web celebrity until it was disconnected in 2001 when the computer department moved to a new building on campus.

The First Message
The Internet as we know it today would not exist without ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. It was the first operational packet switching network, laying the groundwork for how the Internet works today. It launched in 1969 with a network of four small computers called Interface Message Processors, located at University of California Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Utah, and Stanford Research Institute.
UCLA was the first node; Stanford got the second. On October 29, 1969, project leader Leonard Kleinrock supervised UCLA student Charley Kline as he sent the very first host-to-host message from UCLA's SDS Sigma 7 computer to Stanford's SDS 940. The message was intended to be the word 'login', so that UCLA could access the Stanford host. However, the system crashed after sending just the L and the O, one letter at a time; Two simple characters "L & O" ushered in a new era of global communications that would ultimately become part of everyday modern life.

The First Virus
John von Neumann theorized the possibilities of self-reproducing automated programs in 1949, and even designed a theoretical self-replicating computer program. The first true virus, Creeper, was written in 1971 by a BBN Technologies employee named Bob Thomas. BBN was a major player in the field of early computer science, including implementing ARPANET and developing an early operating system called TENEX. Creeper would infect computers running TENEX, then use ARPANET to copy itself into remote systems and display the message, "I'm the creeper, catch me if you can!" This challenge inspired the first piece of anti-virus software, a similarly self-replicating program called Reaper, whose goal was to remove Creeper from infected systems.
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