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CAMBRIDGE (CAP) - When Fred Lohman entered the fledgling Internet Protocol (IP) address accounting business in 1978, he was excited to be getting in on the ground floor of a new industry.
"And it was pretty light work too, at the time," recalls Lohman, now 64. "Basically unless some new mainframe went online at some college somewhere, I pretty much had the day to myself."
But that was then - today, with 4 billion addresses and counting, keeping track of IPs is a lot more complicated than it was in 1978. That's when MIT hired Lohman at a rate of $2.65 per hour and gave him a crisp, leather-bound ledger to record new IP addresses as they came in.
"These days the ledgers are covered with plastic or whatever you call this material ... pleather maybe?" says Lohman, holding up one of the thousands of books he's filled with addresses just in the last week.
Although it's certainly within MIT's reach to record the addresses digitally, Lohman prefers to keep up with the work the way he's always done it: by hand.
"There's something about the feel of writing a new address with a fresh ball-point pen, or maybe a felt-tip marker," he says, continuing to record IP addresses for dozens of new computers, smartphones, video game systems and tablets while he talks.
"I don't sleep more than two hours most nights, and I haven't taken a vacation since 1992," Lohman admitted, still writing numbers in his distinctive scrawl. "But it's worth it."
Unfortunately, a new development in the industry has even Lohman wondering if the loving craftsmanship he's brought to IP address accounting may soon be a thing of the past. With the institution of the new IP standard IPv6, the number of potential IP addresses grew from this week from 4.3 billion to 340 undecillion, or 340 trillion trillion trillion.
"Who even knew undecillion was an actual thing?" Lohman asked, shaking his head while feverishly writing down the IP addresses for some of the hundreds of new cars, wristwatches and washing machines with Internet connections. "That's gonna take a lot of ledgers."
Lohman recalled years ago telling his brother, who retired in 2007 as the last living door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, that IP addresses were the way of the future. "But now he's retired in Florida, and I'm here writing down 340 trillion trillion trillion IP numbers," Lohman said, stopping for just a few seconds to stretch his gnarled claw of a hand before resuming. "Why does a washing machine need to be connected to the Internet, anyway?"
He acknowledges that recent studies showing that the Internet is actually 80 percent pictures of cats and that some states have started offering free Wifi to homeless people have him wondering if it's really worth it.
"But when some kid walks into my [2 million-square-foot] warehouse and asks to see an IP from 1997, the look on his face when I pull that ledger off the shelf and show him the number, well, that's still a thrill," said Lohman.
And how does he find those old addresses among his thousands of carefully catalogued ledger books? He just knows, says Lohman.
"I'm sort of like the man who gives out the wands in Harry Potter," he says. "Only much, much more boring."
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