Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Arlington Invented the Internet!!

Actually... it did. And today at 3:30 the Arlington County Board will be recognizing this historic achievement.

The roots of the Internet go back to something called the ARPANET. ARPANET was a project of a special office in the Pentagon, ARPA, which had as a mission high tech research. ARPA was born after the Ruskies launched Sputnik, shaking the United State's nerves. Pres. Eisenhower realized the importance of technology for the security of the country, and set about rectifying the perceived disadvantage of the United States in terms of technology.

ARPA's mission was to develop missiles and space flight, and to develop IT research. Well, it was then decided that the missile and space flight stuff should go off to a civilian agency: NASA. ARPA proceeded to advance information technology research under the leadership JC Licklider and then Larry Roberts.

At about this time - and as is common with innovation - three different groups invented packet switching (the underlying technology of the Internet)
  • Don Davies in England experimented with packet switching, but for his work to advance, his packet switch networks would have had to been built by the British Postal System.
  • Paul Baran working for RAND under contract with the Air Force was very very concerned about how fragile DOD's command-and-control communications network was. The US communications network was a hub-and-spoke designed network. Take out the hub and you can take out the entire network. He wanted to move to a distributed network that was resilient and could transmit a reliable "Go / No Go" message to the troops. Baran recommended that DOD revise its entire communications network. DOD's communication network was run by analogy switched network engineers who had no interest in Baran's non-feasible ideas. And the idea died.
  • Larry Roberts at ARPA was funding Big-Iron main frame computers at different universities across the United States, supporting IT research. If he gave the X100 to MIT and then the X200 to Stanford, MIT would scream that it wanted the X200. And then if he gave the X300 to Carnegie Mellow, Stanford and MIT would both scream. Everyone wanted the latest and greatest. Roberts wanted them to share. He wanted them to share the hardware and he wanted them the software and research. To achieve this, he needed a network. This would be the ARPANET.
In 1969 two things happened. The United States landed a man on the moon. And the United States transmitted the first packets on the ARPANET. One was on the front page of every newspaper everywhere. The other received no coverage whatsoever. Both radically changed our world.

Paul Baran, whose work was to design a network that would survive nuclear war, attempted to change the entire DOD establishment, and failed. Larry Roberts, in a skunkworks project, attempted initially to network 4 computers. Then 12 computers. And he succeeded.

At about 1970 ARPA moved its office from the Pentagon to Rosslyn (both in Arlington).
ARPA was an experimental office. It was like a venture capital office. It started things. It did not maintain them. In 1971, when ARPANET was an established success, Larry Roberts approached AT&T and said, "hey, we have this packet switching network. We really arent in the business of running networks. Why dont you take it and we will be your anchor tenant." AT&T declined, seeing no role for packet switching in their business plan. Larry Roberts wrote,
I went to AT&T and I made an official offer to them to buy the network from us and take it over. We'd give it to them basically. Let them take it over and they could continue to expand it commercially and sell the service back to the government. So they would have a huge contract to buy service back. And they had a huge meeting and they went through Bell Labs and they made a serious decision and they said it was incompatible with their network. They couldn't possibly consider it. It was not something they could use. Or sell.
Nerds 2.0.1 : A Brief History of the Internet by Stephen Segaller, p. 109 (TV Books 1998)

In 1972, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn began working on a new project known as the Internet Protocol that would provide for greater interconnection between packet switched networks. In 1973 Larry Roberts left ARPA to form Telenet, the first commercial packet switched network. In 1975, the Defense Communications Agency at DOD (the office that had turned Baran down) took over operational control of the ARPANET from ARPA. In 1981, the Defense Communications Agency concluded that it needed to migrate from ARPANET to a new Defense Digital Network, and selected Cerf's and Kahn's Internet Protocol for the network. The Internet was born.

For the rest of the story, see the Internet History at Cybertelecom.

It's good to see Arlington recognize this tremendous historic moment that took place on Arlington soil. Hopefully this will serve as an inspiration to Arlington schools to fully embrace and advance information technology and the important roll it places in our student's future. Arlington is, after all, where the ARPANet was conceived.

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