Internet pioneer Bernie Cosell, on the front porch of Rippling Water, his home in Giles County. The home's design was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Randy Walker. 

The seminal year of 1969 saw the first moon landing, the climax of ’60s counterculture at Woodstock, the peak of the buildup in Vietnam, and the inauguration of Richard Nixon.

An event that attracted no attention at the time, but had enormous consequences, happened on Oct. 29 of that year. 

A student named Charley Kline sent a message over a phone line from a computer at UCLA to a computer at Stanford Research Institute. 

The message, less memorable than “One small step for man,” was the simple command LOGIN. The first attempt crashed the system. The second worked.

Thus came into being the ARPANET, a creation of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

Later, the ARPANET was linked with other computer networks into the globe-encircling web, that, among other things, allows you to read this article. The ARPANET was the ancestor of the internet.

A man who lives in a hilltop retreat in Giles County had a lot riding on the events of that day. In 1969 he was a young programmer for the Boston technology firm Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN). 

Bernie Cosell was one of three programmers — they weren’t called “coders” then — who programmed the Interface Message Processors, devices the size of small refrigerators, that allowed the ARPANET’s first computers to connect via a phone line. IMPs were ancestors of modern routers.

On a hot day in August, when fleecy white clouds sailed through the blue sky, above rolling hills and sheep pastures, Cosell sat on his front porch and mused on his life journey, from the stress and excitement of a hugely successful computer career, to the low-tech life of a sheep farmer. 

Cosell, 75, was born in Queens. He’s no relation to Howard Cosell; both families started with different names that were changed to Cosell. His mom was a housewife, his dad worked for pharmaceutical manufacturer Abbott Laboratories. 

Cosell went to MIT to study math. “A friend of mine at MIT brought me to BBN one day, just to show me around,” he said. “They were in Cambridge, just outside of Boston. BBN was  unbelievable, 24 hours a day people working whatever hours they pleased. I was just at the beginning of my junior year. And basically, not long after that, I got a part-time job with BBN. This is September of ’65. I had no computer experience at all. I had a couple of courses in high school, a couple of courses at MIT. But it was fun. And the environment at BBN was wonderful. And so I started spending all my time working at BBN.”

Cosell first worked on a prototype hospital networking project. “The hospital computer project was many, many, many years ahead of itself, but they were trying to automate Mass General Hospital. And when that project ended, I had about a year and a half of nothing much to do.”

Meanwhile, a deep thinker at the RAND Corporation, Paul Baran, was contemplating the unthinkable. 

“An analyst at RAND Corporation in California was trying to understand how the country might survive in the case of a nuclear war. He thought that the biggest problem was going to be command and communication, that one bomb in the wrong place would turn the country into thousands of people who couldn’t talk to one another. He came up with the idea of dynamic routing. Wasn’t clear what was going to use dynamic routing, but he had this idea that  if the military was all connected together by loose stuff, and something went out, well, there would be another path and it would dynamically change itself to use the other path so they can always stay connected.”

Another visionary, J.C.R. Licklider, pondered how to connect distant computers. “And he envisioned some kind of network that would allow researchers to share their work. So that was all coming to a head.”

Bernie Cosell with the spiral staircase in his Giles County home. Photo by Randy Walker. 

ARPA issued a Request for Quotation to build a prototype network, and Frank Heart at BBN decided to bid on it. 

“BBN was one of the smallest players bidding on that contract,” Cosell said. “The people he was competing against, AT&T … you know, big communications company, so here’s this little old BBN with no experience and no nothing. It was certainly to a lot of people’s surprise — we won the contract.”

BBN modified Honeywell computers to create the Interface Message Processors, and Cosell, along with Will Crowther and Dave Walden, wrote the IMP’s software. 

A BBN team went out to California with the IMPs, and stayed about a month. After the first login, “nobody knew what was going to happen,” Cosell said. “The only thing the three of us, Dave, Will and I, were confident of, was that the IMP was going to work. What we built was the prototype that didn’t break and wouldn’t stop. Whether they could build software that would allow researchers to share things and stuff like that, that’s too fuzzy.”

Ben Woznick worked with Cosell at BBN in the 1980s. “He was sort of like a Swiss Army Knife of programmers,” said Woznick, who’s retired and still lives in Cambridge. “I mean, you got a problem that was very tough, he could be brought in to do it. Very, very wide-ranging ability, the guy who could get things to work that other people couldn’t.”

Meanwhile, the ARPANET evolved into the internet. “I mostly was out of the game by the time TCP/IP [a set of communication protocols] and the internet started happening,” Cosell said. “That was a different generation of researchers, between 1970s and early 1980s.”

In 1986, Cosell and his wife, Lynn, who worked in signal processing at BBN, went to Australia to see Halley’s Comet. The celestial visitor portended a dramatic change in their lives.

“She said, ‘Let’s take a tour of New Zealand,’ and I said, okay. And it was wonderful. It was transformative. We loved New Zealand, we almost didn’t come back.

“New Zealand had three things that got us. First, it was uncrowded. And that really grated on us because Lexington, Cambridge, that part of Boston was jammed. The second thing it had was lovely rolling hills. And the third thing is the lovely rolling hills were dotted with sheep. And we said, this is beautiful. 

“And then when we got back we realized the mess we were living in and it grated on us more and more and more and Lynn wasn’t as happy with her job at BBN as I was, so she retired a year or two before me, but we were both seriously thinking, we’ve done this too much.

“We were starting to look at whether it was possible for us to relocate to New Zealand, and if they would actually give me citizenship or something like that. But then we had a stroke of common sense. And we said, the U.S. is a more remarkably diverse country. There surely must be places that would be as nice as New Zealand. And then we started hanging out at sheep shows … going to the state fairs and talking to people who had little sheep farms and stuff.”

The Cosells were in the enviable position of being able to retire in their 40s.

“Oh, yeah, we were very lucky. We were DINKs back then — double income, no kids. And BBN was soaring. The ARPANET was a great success and a complete boon for the company. The stock went up and up and up. BBN was very generous in their retirement fund. And we got stock options and the stock options were soaring. The other part of it, of course, is that we sold a big house — houses in Lexington, Massachusetts, went for a lot more than small farms down here in Giles County did — and so it just worked out.”

In 1992 they bought the Giles County property, first with 72 acres, later enlarged to 230. 

“Neither Lynn nor I had any clue about anything to do with farms when we moved down here. And that was quite a learning experience for us. And Lynn specifically became our sheep expert. She knows almost as much as the vets at Virginia Tech do these days, and I was sort of in charge of carrying all the bags of feed, and I did most of the feeding and stuff like that and all the tractoring and fencing and we had one guy helping us back then.

“We wanted a less stressed life. And mostly we settled in and the farm was not very stressful, when you’re only doing it as a hobby. And you’re not actually in the business of trying to make it all work. You can relax and enjoy it.”

Cosell kept a hand in the technology game. In the 1990s he worked for Advance Auto in Roanoke, and then for dial-up internet provider Rev.Net, founded by Doyle Edgerton. 

Edgerton could not be reached for comment, but Rev.Net’s website has this undated announcement including a quote from him:

“Edgerton has hired Bernie Cosell, an Internet pioneer, as Security Officer and Senior Programmer. Cosell was among the 12 programmers who wrote the original code for the Internet in 1969. Edgerton considers hiring Cosell a milestone for his company. ‘MCI got Vint Cerf, we got Bernie Cosell. I like the way that worked out.'”

Vinton Cerf is considered one of the fathers of the internet along with Robert Kahn.

The third-floor observation room at Rippling Water has 360-degree views. Photo by Randy Walker. 

It wasn’t until 2011 that the Cosells finally finished their dream home, Rippling Water, its name and design inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. From the front porch, they can look out over their 120 Merino sheep. “They’re decoration, friends and fleece,” Bernie Cosell said.

Both 75, with no children and few visitors, the Cosells have no plans to leave Rippling Water. “Lynn wanted a house we can live in until we die. We have an elevator.  All the doorways will allow a wheelchair. We have a walk-in or roll-in master bath.  My office can be converted into a caregiver’s apartment.”

Looking back at life from his hilltop, Cosell said he had no regrets. “It feels like we did things right. We were also phenomenally lucky. Many times we were in the right place at the right time and made the right decisions. Overall, I think we’ve had a great life and I can’t imagine how it could have worked out better.”

His name isn’t as famous as that of Cerf or Kahn. Cal Ribbens, head of the computer department at Virginia Tech, was unable to suggest anyone on the faculty who could comment on Cosell. Cosell himself said, “I will be at best a footnote.”

Woznick, his former colleague at BBN, agreed with that assessment. “But,” he said, “footnotes are very important.”

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...