Invitation to a Cyberspace Reunion

by Nancy Oster, October 1995

Tonight I'm boiling ten pounds of potatoes to make a potato salad for fifty of my cyberspace friends - old friends reunited in cyberspace.

Sure, I've read those articles and seen the movie about what happens to people who spend too much time online making virtual contact with a community of faceless personalities - people that they have never met and probably never will meet. I guess I must have taken a wrong turn in cyberspace because my cyberfriends are arriving here in Santa Barbara tonight from around the country to party for two days.

The common thread drawing this cybergroup together is Glen Culler. Glen, a professor in the UCSB electrical engineering department back in the 1960's, was responsible for establishing UCSB as an early technological outpost on the ARPA Net frontier.

Glen's genius and ingenuity drove him to believe that one day (and he was determined that it would be sooner, not later) people would have computers on their desks and people would use keyboards to send data to those desktop computers.

That's not real difficult to imagine today, but in the 1960's a computer with the processing power of one of today's digital watches, was bigger than a couple of side-by-side refrigerators. And asking the computer a question, required a pile of punch cards. If you were lucky (and the question was really simple) the answer would be waiting for you the next morning. A hallway collision with someone carrying a stack of punch cards to give the computer operator could result in months of work scattered on the floor between two visibly distressed victims.

Glen was not just a visionary. He moved quickly from vision to experimental design. He actually built those desktop computer terminals using "customized" Techtronix oscilloscopes for the display screens. He conceptualized function keys and then built a prototype keyboard. The "workstations," lined up on tables in a classroom, were then wired to a mainframe computer across the campus. This early network was called the Culler-Fried Online System.

Not satisfied with simple cross-campus networks, Glen expanded his network to include cross-country distance learning links with classrooms at other universities.

The ARPA Net (from which today's Internet has evolved) was an experimental network designed to link strategic military sites around the nation. The government was looking for a way to design a self-healing network. The idea was that if an enemy attack knocked out one or more of the sites, communication between the remaining sites would not be disrupted. Reviewing the innovative work already done by Glen's Computer Research Lab (CRL), it's no puzzle why ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) selected UCSB as the third node on the ARPA Net.

Glen's work was not single-handed. Along the way he gathered a ruffian band of undergraduates and grad students. UCSB Professor Emeritus, Roger Wood, a member of the CRL team, describes Glen as a modern day Pied Piper walking the halls of the third floor Engineering building, trailed by grad students who were eagerly scooping the ideas and pearls of wisdom he dropped in his path.

In choosing students to work for him, Glen never asked for resumes. He searched the eyes of a student for the spark of ingenuity. Much to the surprise of many of them (as well as to some of their other professors), he was quick to recognize the fire of intelligence smoldering within each of the students he chose. And Glen knew how fan those embers. Together, this group generated enough excitement and activity to keep the lights of third floor Engineering and North Hall burning day and night.

"And just how did that group end up here in Santa Barbara again twently-five years later?" you ask. Well, it wasn't just because they heard I make a really good potato salad.

Early last year I was talking with Dale Taylor. Dale and my husband, worked together on the CRL team at UCSB in the late 60's. Dale's said, "Wouldn't it be nice if Glen could get the recognition he deserves as a computer pioneer." ("Wouldn't it be nice if..." is the opening phrase Glen often used as he launched into a new project - heard often enough around the lab to become a Glen-ism).

Dale noted that Fall of 1994 was the 25th anniversary of the ARPA Net. Glen was an honored guest at celebrations in Boston and Los Angeles, but most people in Santa Barbara didn't even know about the role Glen and UCSB had played in the early development of today's Internet.

In addition, most people weren't aware that the roots of the cluster of communications companies in Santa Barbara could be traced to CRL or that Santa Barbara hosts a concentration of the nation's communications expertise. In fact, it wasn't clear that UCSB was aware of the role it had played in the growth of this industry in Santa Barbara or its contribution to the national communications infrastructure.

Dale decided to contact some friends at UCSB to suggest putting together a tribute to Dr. Culler by bringing together all the people whose lives and careers he had affected. The first question Dale was asked when he broached the subject was "But how could you possibly find all those people?"

"Hmm," I thought, "maybe we could use the technology these folks had helped to build, to find them. I asked Frank Dziuba at Silicon Beach how to start a listserv. A listserv is an automatic email mailing list. On the Internet, people subscribe to a mailing list on a particular subject of interest to them. Any mail sent to the mailing list email address is automatically distributed to the email boxes of everyone subscribed to that mailing list.

Frank offered to set one up for me. I gathered the email addresses for some of the local CRL escapees and sent them the following invitation:

INVITATION TO A CYBERSPACE REUNION

I have formed a mail list to bring together the people who worked at, or with, the Computer Research Lab at UCSB in the 1960's and 1970's. We are aware that not only locally but nationally people who passed through the Computer Research Lab have gone on to spread their communications skills. I'm hoping that through this list, we can reach out and find each other.

I am also trying to gather information on the projects you worked on at UCSB and where you have gone from there. We would like to present this information to UCSB in hopes that they will sponsor a retrospective to honor the early telecommunications work that was done then, and continues to be done as a result of those early years.

[Subscription instructions]

Looking forward to this cyberspace reunion,

Nancy Oster

The web of contacts gradually spread out across the country. Not everyone had email addresses and there were several I had to coach through their initial email attempts (although fascinated with building this stuff, not all of them were actually using it).

What came back was, as we had expected, an outpouring of support for organizing a tribute to Glen. With some historical explanation and a little urging from the right people, Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti (better known as Dean Venky), the Dean of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSB, embraced the concept and whole-heartedly put his support behind the organization of a fitting tribute.

The University has invited Doug Englebart, another computer pioneer, colleague, and close friend of Glen Culler to give a public lecture in his honor and has invited Glen's ex-students, co-workers, family, and friends to an elegant dinner to be followed by toast/roast reminscences by people whose lives were etched by Glen's perseverence and humor.

I need to mention that not much at CRL happened as planned. Once the CRL escapees got reacquainted, stories began to fill my email box - stories of demos that required creative last-minute work-arounds, coffee cups flying across rooms during design discussions, memories of draft notice invitations to join the war in Viet Nam, the riots in Isla Vista, a computer that had to be delivered through the third-floor window, projects that failed to produce the hoped-for results, water-ski trips, and unforgettable parties.

It didn't take much convincing to move this reunion from cyberspace to the physical dimension. The most recent count shows 300 people registered to attend the public lecture and 155 people attending the dinner. The potato salad is for a BBQ at Dale's house tomorrow night.

Speaking of potato salad, I think it's time to drain the potatoes. Then I have to go upstairs and figure out what I'm going to wear. The advantage in cyberspace is that no one knows you're in your nightgown.


Post script
The Culler tribute was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a standing ovation night of spontaneous applause and hearty laughter mingled with tears of appreciation. Dave Retz, who helped us present this idea to the University, just posted the following message to the CRL mailing list:

Isn't this unbelievable! Internet has brought us all back together again and... lo and behold... CRL is a group again. Maybe there really is something to this 'cyberspace' stuff.

If you have comments, e-mail me at noster@silcom.com

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