An Interview with Peter Kirstein CBE


Peter Kirstein CBE put the first computer on the ARPANET outside the US, worked with Vint Cerf and Bob Khahe Internet Protocol Suite, and gave the Queen her email address.

Peter Kirstein CBE.

Peter Kirstein CBE. Photograph by Ella Ezeike

I was lucky enough to interview the great man in October 2019 and published excerpts on my YouTube channel. A year on, I’m reminiscing on one of the highlights of my digital investigations and decided it was about time I published the interview in full.

The 1960’S: How it all started 

“General Electric was just getting into computers. In order to be up-to-date, I went and visited various parts of the US which were doing interesting things in time-sharing and networks.

One of the people I met during that time was a graduate student called Larry Roberts, who was at that stage, I think, in Lincoln Labs. That’s also when I met Vint.

I also heard, probably from Gerry Estrin at UCLA or I may have heard it from Larry, that there would be a project starting, it had maybe even started, on networks. It was being run by a company called Bolt Beranek and Newman, and the person who was designing that particular network was somebody called Bob Kahn.

Len Kleinrock I met a little bit later… because I did go to UCLA quite often, so I must have met Len about that time….we certainly were together at a conference in 1971 when I really got to know him well, in, as far as I remember, Ljubljana in Yugoslavia.

Nobody else in Europe was interested in computer networks at that time, except Louis Pouzin in France, who was actually very interested in network protocols, and Donald Davies at the National Physics Laboratory (NPL), who was doing superb research.

Packet Switching and Message Blocks

At that stage, the NPL was a very good national laboratory, and one of the things it was supposed to do was research around the area of communications. I was interested in things to do with communications and networks. Donald told me about a computer network he wanted to build, a national network in Britain, with this new technology of digital. Up to then, all communications were analog.

Donald wanted to build a digital network throughout Britain which followed the digital hierarchy which had been defined for communications over the telephone network. Unfortunately, at that time, the British Post Office had a complete monopoly on anything which went outside a single building. They didn’t want Donald to do things outside the NPL, so he was never allowed to build his national digital network.

His network technology at that particular time was significantly more advanced than anything else but because he wasn’t allowed to go outside the NPL it didn’t make a huge splash in press or publicity. It was actually very good and it was very sad that, because of the monopoly rules in Britain, he wasn’t allowed to develop it. It worked, it worked well, but eventually was overtaken by everybody else, of course.

Donald developed a network technology using digital principles that he called ‘packet switching’. Later that technology was developed very much further, almost entirely in the United States, for the purpose of creating a computer network which was later called the Internet.

There was another project in the US at that time focusing on something which was of a similar, or possibly better, technology, led by Paul Baran. It used a technology which was certainly related to, and might even have been, packet switching, but it did not use that particular name.

In addition to that, there was a graduate student by the name of Len Kleinrock who was doing some very good work on how message switching worked. There’s some argument as to whether or not it was message switching or, sort of, packet switching.

Certainly, Len, and, also, later, Larry, said that he had been working on exactly packet switching, and that this had been done earlier than Donald. The commonalities between the US and UK were not known, possibly until 1967.

The 1970s: The ARPANET Revolution

In something like 1970, the ARPANET was starting to work and was starting to work well.

ARPA stood for the Advanced Research Project Agency, which existed because of Sputnik going up a few years earlier, and it had an absolutely superb remit to look into anything which might be of interest to defence and research. It would work with universities and industry.

There are two obvious reasons ARPANET took off. There was this new thing called Time-sharing, and they made a large effort in time-sharing. The second was the Test-Ban Treaty.

If you looked at the SALT Treaty, there were lots of seismic arrays . The reason for the large Norwegian one was that it was obviously very close to the Soviet Union. So, ARPA put some money into that particular array getting larger. For obvious reasons, it had a leased line to Washington just for seismic monitoring.

Larry had the bright idea that since the ARPANET was working, and since he wanted computers on the ARPANET with applications, why not take this 2.4kb line and link it to Washington through various communications media, which existed internationally, into Washington. That was done, and it worked.

Since he knew about what was happening in London with Donald Davies, he had another good idea. The way in which communications worked in those days was that there was only one earth station in Europe – in Goonhilly – and the way one went between Washington and the array in Norway was to take a satellite to Goonhilly and then a mixture of landlines and underwater lines to Norway.

He proposed to go via London. Unfortunately, that was the time that the British were trying to get into the Common Market. De Gaulle had previously said no to the British joining Europe because we were too closely linked with America and too weakly linked with Europe. Therefore, Heath decided that he did not wish to accept the offer to link to the US and did not allow Donald to accept the offer. P

Larry had met me before, he knew me, he knew that I knew Europe, the US, and the technology. I was the logical person to offer it to next. I was interested, I’d heard about it, I would’ve loved to have, while working on my research in the university, done it. I had no money, of course, but I said I’d love to accept it. So, he made me the offer.

I then applied for money from my Research Councils, but they thought it was nonsense to do, for one particular reason. For internal political reasons, the ARPANET had been said to be an experiment. The people in Britain doing things didn’t deal with experiments, they dealt with services. So, if this thing was an experiment, they would not back a research proposal to connect into it, they wanted only to connect into a proper service, and so they turned down that.

In order to get something like that accepted, it had to get support from other universities and industry. I knew fairly senior people in ICL, which was the biggest British computer industrial company, and asked them, ‘Would they write me a letter to give me verbal support that it was a good idea to make the link?’ They took 6 months, although I knew them well, to answer my letter, and then said that they’d looked at it, but they thought it would be more valuable to have a two-week travel trip to Washington to see what the ARPANET was doing. So, they refused to write the letter.

I had proposed, as part of my research proposal, to offer services to British universities through the ARPANET and my link. Various people were enthusiastic, but at least one thought it wasn’t good enough for their university and so nobody wrote the letter.

Not getting approval from either the universities or industry for a research proposal, it was refused, and so I had no money.

That gave me a slight problem, but Donald Davies who did know me and who was allowed to issue a grant or contract for £5,000, offered me £5,000 to do my research. I knew very senior people in the Post Office, and they knew me, and they offered to pay for a line from London UCL, or near UCL, to Norway for one year at no cost to me, because the cost of a 2.5kb line between London and Norway was way over the £5,000. So, they provided that line for one year. Therefore, I was able to accept the offer, the project started, and the rest is history.

The first part of this interview can be viewed on the Digital Archaeology YouTube channel:

The first password on the Internet

By 1973, the project had started, and, in July 1973, the equipment from DARPA arrived. By the way, it’s DARPA or ARPA depending on which year it was. The equipment had arrived and we had a firm connection to the ARPANET. At that time, there was a major conference on networks in Brighton.

Because I had all those links, it was thought a good idea to show them working, because nobody had ever shown a thing like that working internationally. I was the only person who was international in this sort of area.

I invited them to dinner. They had been away from their mail for at least two weeks at the conference and there were about fifteen of them (anybody who was doing anything with the ARPANET anywhere in the US).

They wanted to go upstairs in my house to where there was actually a Teletype which was connected to the ARPANET, and therefore would go to the US, and look at their mail.

As part of my research activity, I had discovered that the tip, which was the machine which one connected into the ARPANET, provided by the US and BBN, was actually open, completely open, for at least half a second, while one pressed a button. Therefore, I realised that you could seize that line, do anything you liked with it for that half-second before you returned it. It wouldn’t disturb anything.

I was sensitive to the fact that this was involving something international, and something research, and something to do with defence. I didn’t want to have any troubles. So, I would put a password on.

They didn’t know any of this. So, when they tried to use it in the way they’d normally use their own machine, which they’d designed and built, they couldn’t get on, because they had to put in a password.

For the first time, they suddenly realised that there was a password which stopped them getting in, because I’d stopped them, and they didn’t know I could.

From California to Norway and back, via the UK

There was an occasion, in 1977, where we wanted to show that a computer sitting in Malvern in the Royal Signals and Research Establishment (RSRE), could be connected to me, in UCL, and, from there, go through a satellite network, which was also under ARPA auspices, through the terrestrial ARPANET in the US, to SRI, and then go through a packet radio network, through a car, and all use the emerging Internet protocols, which Vint and Bob had developed. That was demonstrated, extremely successfully, and worked.

The Queen’s First Email

In 1976, the Royal Signals and Research Establishment was opening a new building, and that new building was going to be opened by the Queen. They wanted to make some sort of event of it. At that particular time, one was negotiating, or wanted to start, a project, I think in some sort of software. I believe it was called ‘Coral’ at the time and was a real-time defence software, between DARPA in Washington and the RSRE.

The Queen was going to open the building; in fact, I didn’t know whether the Queen would open it, or Prince Philip, and that would make some difference to the sort of software I provided.

On the US side, I’d been told to keep a very low profile because they were worried that somebody would object to what I was doing internationally. When they knew the Queen was about to open this particular thing, everybody who was anybody around that area, in DARPA, were only too keen to be involved.

It was actually going to be a message, or more than one message, sent from that laboratory in Malvern to I think BBN or ISI in Los Angeles. That was done very successfully.

I had, up to then, always used, for everything, my own email address. Since it was the Queen, I requested that they provide a new email address, called ‘HME2’ for Her Majesty, which they did. That was used as part of that particular opening of the building.

The First Video Conferencing

One of my research activities with ARPA was to do with the first video conferencing and multimedia conferencing. ARPA was interested in involving the Ministry of Defence on this. So, they put quite a bit of effort into putting a couple of people in my group, for a while.

They were extremely disappointed when the demonstration, which was supposed to be quite a lot of people in the Ministry of Defence, only had three mid-range MoD people attend. What ARPA didn’t know, and I didn’t know, was that they had unfortunately chosen the evening of Desert Storm for that demonstration.

Taking on Bureaucracy

I’m an individual who doesn’t particularly want to work within the constraints of a university organisation. I like to do things independently, as an individual, and I’m prepared to take on bureaucracy, with all the difficulty that that causes in getting a research project started.

If this is done by an individual who’s actually doing something worthwhile, it can have a success which you don’t get when a whole organisation is doing it.

I was lucky enough to be an awkward cast who did that sort of thing. I did not obey what my university would have liked an organisation to be. I argued with them hard, had lots of difficulty getting approved, but there are few people like that.

Most can’t be bothered to take on an organisation that way. When something like that is done by somebody who’s doing something worthwhile, you can make the sort of progress which is unimaginable, well, it’s imaginable, but doesn’t happen when it’s done within the confines it should be done in.

Collaboration and Trust

You’ll also sometimes get people who take the trouble to collaborate between organisations. In the case of Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, one was in a university, the other one was working in a US government laboratory, an organisation for research.

Those two had a bright idea together, liked each other, trusted each other, and did something huge together, and stayed friendly forever afterwards. Under those circumstances, one makes progress which is really world-shattering. Very few people do it quite that broadly. There were, at that stage, no thoughts of profit at all. There was no question of industrial involvement.

Even ten years later, or twenty years later, when those two were still working together, they proposed a much higher speed Internet, with its protocols at that stage. I met somebody from, at that stage, British Telecom, who said, ‘It’s absolute nonsense to go to megabit speeds. Nobody needs it.’ They didn’t believe there was the slightest reason to go to megabit speeds. They couldn’t understand how one would even envisage that happening.

Those two proposed, and had funded, a superb programme which did that. I was, and probably shouldn’t have been, one of the reviewers. I shouldn’t have been because I knew them both, and you shouldn’t be a reviewer when you know the people, and I was from abroad in any case.

Again, it’s individuals collaborating, as distinct from ones who work for an organisation and don’t.

Security considerations

At the early stages, we had no thoughts of profit at all. Twenty years later, whenever you introduce something, the profit margin came in. That completely changed the nature of what one was doing. In the first case, although one was aware there might be real dangers, that’s why security was considered.

The Americans thought of security just the same when they started, but they decided that, if you wanted to put in security at that stage, that would make things go slowly, because security would have to be approved, and there would be a lot of bureaucracy. It was better not to put security in. That doesn’t mean they hadn’t thought about it; of course they had, but they chose not to put it in.

Later, it became so clear, both because of how successful and how broad the Internet became, and because money was coming in too, and with it crime, which hadn’t at the beginnin. You couldn’t possibly envisage doing anything like that anymore. It completely changed the environment, completely changed the sort of people involved, the sort of threats. The good paths just change.

Envisioning the Future

UCL is just opening a new centre in artificial intelligence, which involves having UCL, industry and start-ups involved together, in artificial intelligence, which is obviously vastly important.

Obviously you couldn’t have artificial intelligence and large sets of data without also having something like the Internet, which allows them to connect together.

There is a huge impact which is going to come, and UCL and industry is deeply involved, in all those together. Obviously, they have huge potential for good, and, equally well, they have huge potential for bad. We have a very, very serious problem that it is impossible for the law, and the way in which one makes laws, to keep up with the speed at which one can do things with technology.

I have not the faintest idea how one solves the problem that the bad people can actually do the wrong things long before the law’s been changed enough to make that illegal. That’s one very, very serious problem.

It’s obvious that the combination of artificial intelligence and the Internet has a huge potential for good, and may have a huge potential for bad, and that everything we’re currently worrying about on the Internet will be very, very much more amplified when you start getting to artificial intelligence, because it’s so much broader than just the Internet.

Any problem we’ve had up to now is going to be very, very much worse, with immediate international ramifications, both ways.

Luckily, I’m too old to have to solve it!”