“Request for Comments”

December 1, 2013 · 2 min read

Great story about the origin of “Request for Comments” as the title for Internet standards documents:

In the summer of 1968, a small group of graduate students from the first four host sites—UCLA, SRI, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah— had met in Santa Barbara. They knew that the network was being planned, but they’d been given few details beyond that.…

A month or so after the new group began meeting, it became clear to [Steve] Crocker and others that they had better start accumulating notes on the discussions. If the meetings themselves were less than conclusive, perhaps the act of writing something down would help order their thoughts. Crocker volunteered to write the first minutes. He was an extremely considerate young man, sensitive to others. “I remember having great fear that we would offend whoever the official protocol designers were.” Of course, there were no official protocol designers, but Crocker didn’t know that. He was living with friends at the time and worked all night on the first note, writing in the bathroom so as not to wake anyone in the house. He wasn’t worried about what he wanted to say so much as he wanted to strike just the right tone. “The basic ground rules were that anyone could say anything and that nothing was official.”

To avoid sounding too declarative, he labeled the note “Request for Comments” and sent it out on April 7, 1969. Titled “Host Software,” the note was distributed to the other sites the way all the first Requests for Comments (RFCs) were distributed: in an envelope with the lick of a stamp. RFC Number 1 described in technical terms the basic “handshake” between two computers—how the most elemental connections would be handled. “Request for Comments,” it turned out, was a perfect choice of titles. It sounded at once solicitous and serious. And it stuck.

“When you read RFC 1, you walked away from it with a sense of, ‘Oh, this is a club that I can play in too,’” recalled Brian Reid, later a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon. “It has rules, but it welcomes other members as long as the members are aware of those rules.” The language of the RFC was warm and welcoming. The idea was to promote cooperation, not ego. The fact that Crocker kept his ego out of the first RFC set the style and inspired others to follow suit in the hundreds of friendly and cooperative RFCs that followed. “It is impossible to underestimate the importance of that,” Reid asserted. “I did not feel excluded by a little core of protocol kings. I felt included by a friendly group of people who recognized that the purpose of networking was to bring everybody in.” For years afterward (and to this day) RFCs have been the principal means of open expression in the computer networking community, the accepted way of recommending, reviewing, and adopting new technical standards.

From Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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