2006 was the year of two important local anniversaries. More than a century apart, one is of regional interest; the other marks an event of worldwide significance. Each has a connection to one Portola Valley building.
First, the oldest commemoration. San Mateo County is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. It was April 19, 1856 when the county was created. Few county buildings have survived for those 150 years. One is Portola Valley’s Alpine Inn, also known affectionately as Rossotti’s or simply Zot’s. Opened originally in the 1850s by Felix Buelna as a place for Californios to drink and gamble, its survival is one of the surprising quirks of history.
In 1908 David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president, wrote to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors about the little building known today as the Alpine Inn. “The Wunder is unusually vile, even for a roadhouse, a great injury to the university, and a disgrace to San Mateo County,” he said.
Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that that same rough little structure at the intersection of Arastradero and Alpine roads has not only survived but also was the site of an event that marked the beginning of an unparalleled change in the way people across the planet live, work, and play?
The second event commemorated that year took place thirty years earlier, on August 27, 1976. Researchers from SRI International in Menlo Park chose Zot’s for a special ceremony. The SRI mobile radio laboratory, housed in a large van, pulled up outside the roadhouse one warm summer afternoon. The scientists placed a computer terminal on one of the picnic tables out behind the building and connected it to the van. Then they proceeded to send a long electronic report.
In a February 2002 article from CORE 3.1, the journal of the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, former SRI Computer Science Division Vice-President Don Nielson called this electronic message (not yet called e-mail) “… the first internet transmission…” What a surprising addition to the annals of the oldest surviving roadhouse in California!
And why did the scientists choose Rossotti’s for this event? “It was a well-known place and far enough from SRI to qualify as ‘remote’ but close enough to have good radio contact through a repeater station atop a hill above Stanford,” Nielson reported. Perhaps they also liked the idea of linking the past with the future, using one of the oldest buildings in the area for a landmark event they believed would revolutionize the future.
Scientists at SRI and other places had been working on developing this flexible integration of dissimilar digital communications networks for two or three years. The SRI scientists had been testing this new protocol for some weeks and decided to acknowledge their success with the little celebration at Rossotti’s. Technical details, including a diagram of the Rossotti’s transmission, can be found in the article “The SRI Van and Computer Internetworking” in that 2002 Computer History Museum journal.
Although ARPANET transmissions had been taking place since 1969, now two dissimilar networks had been linked for the first time. A year later, in 1977, three neworks were linked in transmissions, and the Internet was on its way.
Few who join the crowd at the rustic tables for hamburgers and beer know about that momentous afternoon in 1976. The internet age began when an electronic message was sent from the picnic grounds of Zot’s via the radio network to SRI International and on through a second network (the ARPANET) to its final destination in Boston.