November 11, 2012
The Government Didn't Build That!By Arvind Kumar
According to government mythology, the world owes the existence of the internet to the government, and computer communications would not exist today without the government thinking up the idea of computer networks. This fairy tale is usually based on the claim that the first network using the technology used in today's internet was built for the government agency Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It leaves out the inconvenient fact that ARPA's computer network was built not by government bureaucrats, but by Bolt Beranek and Newman, a private-sector firm in Massachusetts. The proponents of the government narrative typically suppress the role of BBN and also remain silent about the state of computer communications in the early 1960s.
BBN not only built the network for ARPA, but also came up with the details of how to build it. According to Dave Walden, a member of the BBN team that built the network, they submitted a "fairly detailed design, including initial hardware designs, a software architecture and fairly detailed initial timing analysis, principles of system operation, and so forth" as part of the bid. Walden also writes how BBN preemptively prepared for the bid even before the Request for Proposal was put out by the government.
While I don't remember the exact dates, I think by 1968 Robert Kahn, who was aware that there would be a competitive procurement for the ARPANET backbone of IMPs, had convinced BBN management that BBN should prepare itself to bid on this procurement when it came out. BBN pulled a team together under the supervision of Frank Heart that included Bob, Severo Ornstein, me and perhaps others to think about what we would bid once the Request for Proposal came out from the government. In 1968 the RFP did come out and a number of people from throughout BBN helped draft and review the proposal.
In a 1990 interview, Robert Kahn, one of the pioneers of the internet who worked for BBN, described how he initiated contact with ARPA's Lawrence Roberts by writing a letter to him. At this time, Kahn had already been working in the area of computer networking.
The facts related by Kahn and Walden illustrate the fact that BBN was the driving force behind the creation of ARPANET. In October 1972, it was BBN's Kahn who gave the first public demonstration of the network. Each of the computers in the network reported every minute to the Network Control Center at BBN's office, highlighting the fact that BBN and not ARPA controlled the operation of the network.
By this time, other successful attempts at computer communications using the existing circuit switching method had already been demonstrated. A New York Times article dated Dec. 11, 1962 mentions that a computer was operated by a remote keyboard that was thousands of miles away.
Far-Away Keyboard Runs Computer
A data communications system enabling a person to control a computer thousands of miles away, using existing commercial communication facilities, was demonstrated yesterday.
The system links a Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company to Western Union's telex network.
An important feature of the system is that it gives a person direct control of a computer from a remote keyboard.
An earlier article in the Financial Post dated May 20, 1961 mentions Honeywell's networks and credits the development of communications systems to the demand from business.
Thus, communication between two remote computers existed before ARPANET although ARPANET was the first to use the packet switching method to send data. The main difference between the circuit switching and packet switching methods was that the former pre-allocated the transmission lines for the entire period of communication, while the latter method broke up the data into smaller packets and dynamically routed the packets.
In a 1978 paper entitled "The Evolution of Packet Switching," Lawrence G. Roberts traced the development of the packet-switched networks and detailed the role of the private sector as well as ARPA. He pointed out that the idea of packet switching had been around in the telegraph and mail industries and that it was now applied to the computing world because the cost of computing had become cheaper than the cost of transmission lines. According to Roberts:
Packet switching technology was not really an invention, but a reapplication of the basic dynamic-allocation techniques used for over a century by the mail, telegraph, and torn paper tape switching systems...
In the early 1960's, pre-allocation was so clearly the proven and accepted technique that no communications engineer ever seriously considered reverting to what was considered an obsolete technique, dynamic-allocation. Such techniques had been proven both uneconomic and unresponsive 20-80 years previously, so why reconsider them?
Thus, it was the economic motive and not a government mandate that led to the choice of packet switching. Roberts put it succinctly when he described the reason for choosing one of circuit switching or packet switching: "The resulting economic tradeoff is simple: if lines are cheap, use circuit switching; if computing is cheap, use packet switching."
This idea manifested itself once again in the 1990s, when the earliest GSM networks for mobile phones were based on circuit switching and not packet switching. As the demand increased due to the increased usage of mobile phones, GSM networks incorporated packet switching methods.
The development of the first packet-switched computer network that was accessible to the public and the role of the private sector in its creation were also described by Roberts in his paper.
The early packet networks were all private networks built to demonstrate the technology and to serve a restricted population of users...
Bolt Beranek and Newman, the primary contractor for the ARPANET, felt strongly that a public packet switched data communications was needed... BBN formed the Telenet Communications Corporation in late 1972. In October 1973 Telenet filed its request with the FCC for approval to become a carrier and to construct a public packet switched network; six months later the FCC approved Telenet's request.
This network along with the network BBN had built for ARPA laid the groundwork for today's internet. An article in a 1975 edition of Computerworld too points out that the choice of packet switching was motivated by cost considerations and not by the altruistic urges of government officials.
Despite the well-documented history of the role of economic motives and the private sector in building the internet, Robert Taylor, who once worked for ARPA, recently made some fantastic claims to the contrary. An article in Wired Magazine quotes him as saying:
Each of Taylor's assertions is wrong. The engine of innovation is the private sector; it is the entrepreneurs who take risks, ARPANET was built by a firm in the private sector, and the ideas used for the network were not "crazy" ones, but rather ideas which had already been applied in the telegraph industry.
Entrepreneurs use opportunities that come their way, and a government contract is merely another opportunity to sell their product or services. It is a mistake to confuse such opportunities with the cause and credit the government for the innovations of entrepreneurs.
Paul Baran of the RAND Corporation, who was the earliest proponent of the idea of applying packet switching to computer networks, recognized this fact. He clearly stated in a footnote in his famous 1964 work that his opinions were not those of his sponsors, whether they were from the government or from the private sector.
Governments typically seek excuses to impose regulations and grab control resulting in the slowdown of innovation and progress. It was no different with the nascent computer-networking industry which was subjected to an investigation by a Senate subcommittee headed by Philip Hart who was worried that computers would be responsible for violating the privacy of individuals.
Politicians like Al Gore and Barack Obama have sought to take credit for the development of the internet in order to push their belief that the world would be a better place if entrepreneurship were replaced by legislation and bureaucracy. Their attempts to credit the government for the existence of the internet is similar to crediting the Nazis for the existence of the airline industry. Just as ARPA was the first customer of the packet switched network in the days of circuit switching, the Nazis were the first to purchase a jet plane in the era of propeller-driven aircraft.
The role of politicians in the development of the internet is best exemplified by Ted Kennedy, who, upon learning that BBN had won the contract for building ARPA's "Interface Message Processor," sent BBN a congratulatory message for winning the contract to build the "Interfaith Message Processor" and thanked them for their ecumenical efforts!
The author can be reached at arvind at classical-liberal dot.net.
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