Pål Spilling is famous for turning off the Internet in Norway in 1988. But not because he thought the connection wasn’t living up to its potential to network academics from the region to the rest of the world. Instead, the first widespread infection by a self-replicating code was headed his way. Spilling’s colleagues in the United States called to warn him about the Morris worm wreaking havoc in America.
“It was a big thing, I remember,” says Pieter Spilling, Pål’s son. “He was quite calm when he got the phone call. Then he drove to the office and pulled the plug. At that time there was only one point of contact for the whole country – a single cable. And then we saw him on television talking about the hack. It made the newspaper, too.”
Pål Spilling, who died in 2018 and was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2021, started working with fellow IHOF inductee Yngvar Lundh to establish the first Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) node outside the U.S. in 1973. This made Norway the first country connected to the Internet, beating the United Kingdom by mere hours. He was working at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (NDRE) in Kjeller, Norway then.
Though he earned his Ph.D. in nuclear physics, by the time Spilling finished that degree at Utrecht University in the Netherlands in 1968 and returned to Norway, the country had turned away from implementing nuclear power as an energy source in favor of hydroelectric, oil and gas. With few job prospects in his academic field, Spilling instead joined NDRE, where he met Lundh. It was Lundh’s work with early Internet pioneers in the U.S. and their interest in detecting then-Soviet underground nuclear testing activity that prompted Norway’s involvement in ARPANET.
“My father liked to dive deep into research, and since the Internet was a new thing, he got motivated by the project because of the new technology,” says Pieter. “No one else in Norway was working on it, it was international in scope, and allowed him to travel to London and the U.S.”
Collaborating with fellow early Internet developers Peter Kirstein and Vint Cerf in the mid-1970s, Spilling helped develop Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, forming TCP/IP, to manage communications across the Internet. During a year at Stanford Research Institute (SRI International) in 1979, Spilling also contributed to real-time internet speech and packet radio communications.
“When we came to the U.S. my father bought a tent-trailer and we drove across the country from New York City to Niagara Falls, through Minnesota, to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, then to San Francisco and ending in Palo Alto just a block away from the famous HP-garage. We spent many weekends traveling to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Arizona, and of course Disneyland, while we were in the U.S.,” says Pieter.
After leaving NDRE in 1982, Spilling joined the Norwegian Telecommunications Administration (NTA-RD). The NDRE ARPANET node followed him. This became the entrée for real-time Norwegian academic and research communities to communicate with their international counterparts. Spilling then continued work on communications security and combining Internet technology with fiber-optic networks. In 1993, he became professor of informatics at University of Oslo and UNIK, the University Graduate Center at Kjeller.
Awarded the Rosing Honorary Prize in 2010 by the Norwegian Computer Society, Spilling was recognized along with Lundh and Dag Belsnes for his significant contribution to the development of the TCP/IP protocol. But Pieter believes that his father would have considered his greatest accomplishment seeing his name on the Birth of the Internet plaque commemorating early Internet pioneers that Vint Cerf donated to Stanford University in 2005. Because though Spilling was deeply immersed in research, equally as important to him was his desire to connect and build community – both professionally with his Internet colleagues and at home in Norway.
“In 1973 my parents received refugees from Chile after the Pinochet coup. We were the contact family for a four-person family and their relatives. Our relationship is still strong with the two kids, especially the daughter whom we regularly visit in Italy where she now lives with her three daughters,” says Pieter.
Adding that his father was always inclusive with people and tried to encourage collaboration with colleagues across the world, Pieter recalls that the Spillings hosted an early ARPANET meeting in Norway at their house in the small town of Gjerdrum outside of Oslo. (Of note, this house was the first private Norwegian home connected to the Internet.) About twenty people attended, many of them bringing spouses and children. Pieter remembers one of his brothers babysitting for the attendees’ children, and the whole group going sightseeing in Oslo, promoting a feeling of family during the gathering.
Spilling also volunteered in the local community, contributing to the building of a cultural facility where amateur theater groups rehearsed, bands performed and civic organizations met. He also served for a time on the local school’s parents association board. With an interest in politics, he was once nominated to be Mayor of Gjerdrum, but wasn’t elected.
As for what Spilling would think of the Internet today, Pieter says his father’s concerns were for personal and data security. “He didn’t like the notion of leaving personal information and cookies all over the place, so that people could track you. He would have been quite worried about hacking and the bad sides of the Internet, especially how the Internet can be used and abused to manipulate opinions in society. He was also concerned about the advent of artificial intelligence and how that is used. He certainly wouldn’t have imagined what the ARPANET would develop into and what it has now become.”