Who funded the Internet? I care that you don’t know what it is!

July 26, 2012 at 2:29 am 14 comments

I’m not really that upset or surprised over the argument that the government did (or did not) fund the Internet.  I do realize that it really matters, but it’s a complex issue. The Internet was most successful because of a government and business partnership, which means that there’s always going to be  a question of who did what.

As a computing educator, I am more concerned that the article in the Wall Street Journal was so full of conceptual errors!  Hyperlinks have nothing to do with the Internet. Ethernet is not the Internet.  As my colleague Christine Alvarado said to me on Facebook, the WSJ piece is a symptom of a problem that even educated Americans do not understand the computing in our daily lives.

Crovitz then points out that TCP/IP, the fundamental communications protocol of the Internet, was invented by Vinton Cerf (though he fails to mention Cerf’s partner, Robert Kahn). He points out that Tim Berners-Lee “gets credit for hyperlinks.”

Lots of problems here. Cerf and Kahn did develop TCP/IP–on a government contract! And Berners-Lee doesn’t get credit for hyperlinks–that belongs to Doug Engelbart of Stanford Research Institute, who showed them off in a legendary 1968 demo you can see here. Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web–and he did so at CERN, a European government consortium.

Cerf, by the way, wrote in 2009 that the ARPANet, on which he worked, “led, ultimately, to the Internet.”

As for Ethernet, which Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs invented at PARC (under Taylor’s watchful eye), that’s by no means a precursor of the Internet, as Crovitz contends. It was, and is, a protocol for interconnecting computers and linking them to outside networks–such as the Internet. And Metcalfe drew his inspiration for the technology from ALOHANet, an ARPA-funded project at the University of Hawaii.

via So, who really did invent the Internet? – Los Angeles Times.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Deepak Kumar  |  July 26, 2012 at 7:55 am

    You mean, it wasn’t Al Gore? I am shocked! 🙂

  • 2. alanone1  |  July 26, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Hi Mark

    I think the truth often has way too many messy details for any journalist’s taste (and for most of their readers). And the same for blogs.

    Crovitz was all over the map and off on most things. But it’s interesting that both you and Cristine Alvarado are victims of hearing a better but still inaccurate story secondhand. For example, PARC actually did invent and make a working internet before the “real Internet”, and just as Hitzik noted in his book: because we didn’t want to wait, and as Metcalfe said, we had more networks to connect than they did.

    The unifier in this story is Licklider and ARPA-IPTO. The Internet is a direct result of this vision and (mostly) this funding.

    The simplest way of thinking about PARC is that it was “an ARPA project that happened to be funded by a company rather than DoD”. I.e. virtually all of us were from the ARPA community, and Taylor had been one of the ARPA funders. We were early on the ARPA net, etc.

    The “internetworking” idea happened soon after the ARPAnet got going in Sept ’69 (PARC started in 70, for real in 71). PARC people were always part of the Internet committee that was mostly headed by Vint Cerf (and all of us had been ARPA grad students, etc.).

    PARC had decided to be completely self-contained as far as getting things done (the catch phrase was “Error 33” — which was “Don’t put other people’s work and research into your critical path”). It is hard to describe to most people today just how seriously we took this idea and how deeply it was carried out.

    The Ethernet was home-grown (Metcalfe & Boggs) and happened early after PARC started (it was delightfully simple — this was another PARC principle that is hard to explain: we had all decided we weren’t smart enough to pull off our goals with any solutions that were complicated). It was also in the first few years of the 70s that the idea of internetworking got its label and people started thinking about the general issues involved. An early paper was by Vint and Bob Kahn.

    As soon as the Alto got going (1973) and the Ethernet (almost at the same time), PARC started thinking about the problem of linking one Ethernet system to another, possibly from those on the West Coast to those in Rochester. This led to “PUP” (PARC Universal Packets) and a relatively quick implementation using Altos as “Gateways” (what we would call “routers” today). Altos were used for everything — not just as PCs, but for running the laser printers, file servers, gateways, etc.

    PUP stayed simple and got more powerful. Some extremely “smart citizens” did the design and implementation: Metcalfe & Boggs, John Shoch (from my group), Ed Taft, Chuck Thacker, Butler Lampson, etc.

    Some of them were on the Internet committee … and there are some funny incidents where attempts were made to convey some of these results without violating the Xerox secrecy agreements ….

    At one point, Cerf said to Metcalfe “You’ve already done this, haven’t you?”

    However, the intellectual community idea flow worked in both directions, so I think everyone involved regards the Internet as “ARPA” (and the PARC part of it as “ARPA”).

    So: the ARPA-IPTO funding from about 1962 until the congressional problems via the Viet Nam War starting around 1970, cannot be too highly praised — and DoD, not Congress should get this credit. And you can tell your friend that nothing else of interest would have happened without it. He just completely doesn’t understand. (For example, virtually all of the computer researchers at PARC had been created by ARPA-IPTO ….).

    And: most of the problems also had to do with the changes in funding — so we can also damn the government (in this case the Congress) for not being diligent about the ramifications of sweeping bills such as the Mansfield Amendment.

    We can thank Bob Taylor (and he has been thanked via a Presidential Medal and the Draper Prize) for both being one of the 4 IPTO directors in the 60s, and for rescuing the ARPA dream by taking it to PARC in the 70s.

    And we can be sad and a bit pissed that one more journalist “went Greek” and thought he could “guess history” via making a chain of logic and constructing a story he liked. (He could have tried reading the abundant enough literature on what actually happened …)



    • 3. Bri Morrison  |  July 26, 2012 at 10:45 am

      Thanks for the “insider” view of what happened, and for concisely explaining the funding situation. I think that being at PARC in the 70s (and into the early 80s) would have been truly magical and something that we could only dream to reproduce in the current environment. Oh to have been a fly on the wall then…

      As always, I truly appreciate your insight.


      • 4. alanone1  |  July 26, 2012 at 11:25 am

        Thanks Briana

        The old mechanical fortune teller in Thornton Wilder’s play said “I tell the future: nothing easier. But who can tell the past?”

        The past is too detailed for most people’s tastes, so it is abstracted into fond mythic slogans which represent desired beliefs in story form and which are rarely checked.

        The extent to which this is happens online is staggering given that we put a lot of effort in creating personal computing and pervasive networking so that users are placed within just a few clicks of being able to check most things.

        That they still don’t even take this minor trouble, means a number of important things about the way people generally think, and how poorly education has done in getting people out of “proverbial mode” and into modern thinking.



    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  July 26, 2012 at 11:27 am

      Thanks from me, too, Alan! How similar in the end was the PARC Internet to Cerf’s Internet? Was IP much different than PUP?


      • 6. alanone1  |  July 26, 2012 at 11:56 am

        Hi Mark

        There is a great PARC “Blue and White” (in a pretty complete collection of these) online written by the main PUP designers and builders:

        Click to access CSL-79-10_Pup_An_Internetwork_Architecture_Jul79.pdf

        Interesting question: given the massive impact of PARC on the so many major parts of the computing scene for the last 30 years, how could it be that most computerists (and especially those who went to university) have been disinclined to read these?

        This is why I say “we don’t really have a field”.



        • 7. Mark Miller  |  July 26, 2012 at 6:36 pm

          A caveat I thought I should add to what I said about journalists not being good historians is that I’ve seen some articles from the New York Times on influential technologies and the people who worked to create them that are of surprisingly good quality. Every time, I’ve seen them accurately bring history into the subject, and they go on at length.

          An excellent specimen of what I’m talking about is this set of blog posts (a blog no less!) on the NYT website, called “Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck?”, written by Errol Morris, Noel Morris’s younger brother:


          You have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to start at the beginning, as it’s written in 5 parts, and display in descending order.

          • 8. Mark Miller  |  July 26, 2012 at 6:39 pm

            Oops. Meant this as a reply to Alan’s first comment. Wish I could somehow move it…

    • 9. Mark Miller  |  July 26, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      Some of them were on the Internet committee … and there are some funny incidents where attempts were made to convey some of these results without violating the Xerox secrecy agreements ….

      At one point, Cerf said to Metcalfe “You’ve already done this, haven’t you?”

      I read about this in Waldrop’s book, “The Dream Machine,” and indeed, he got across the humor of it. 🙂 The impression Waldrop (or perhaps Hiltzick, since he extensively referred to his work when talking about PARC) gave was that Metcalfe asked what I’d call “rhetorical questions” during the meetings to slyly make leading suggestions to Cerf, et al. about where they should look next for ideas.

      Speaking from the experience of once only knowing the popular culture in computing, I think with regard to interactive computing and the internet, the reason the history is so shallow, and often mistaken, is due to the many after-the-fact interviews that are recounted in magazines, which are amateurish from a history perspective to varying degrees, and dominate the category in pop culture.

      Some of the problems have been limited time, and “editing for space.” It takes quite a bit to explain the full history. “People who were there” are quoted, giving the history that’s published legitimacy, though they maybe didn’t know the whole story, or they chose to de-emphasize parts of it in order to emphasize something else that seemed more relevant at the time of the interview. Historians know these sorts of habits (or at least they should), and take them into account when writing history. Journalists don’t do this so much.

      The accounts included some assumptions about “where computing comes from,” which generally pointed back to industry. The one exception was the internet, which the pop history claimed came from ARPA. That’s true as far as it went, but…that’s as far as it went… They didn’t mention Metcalfe or Ethernet at all in relation to it. In fact, I don’t recall them even mentioning Vint Cerf or Bob Kahn, the creation of TCP/IP, much less Bob Taylor with regard to the Arpanet. The only way I heard about Cerf being involved at all, initially, was seeing mentions a few years later about him being “the father of the internet,” but I was given no clue about what he did.

      Journalists say that their job is to “write the first draft of history,” though this has to do with writing about news as it happens, not what happened years earlier. From what I’ve seen, journalists don’t make good historians.

      If students in school were taught history as historians understand it, I think this problem would be lessened. You said recently on Mark’s blog that even though students are sent to school to be educated, it’s kind of rare when they actually are. I think that applies here.

  • 10. Rick Adrion  |  July 26, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Yes, it is sad but understandable that there is much confusion over the origins of the internet as we know it. There is no one “inventor,” but rather it evolved from ideas, actions and accidents. Universities and government research labs, corporations, startups, academic, academic-industry and not-for-profit consortia, and US and international governing bodies were all involved. The public confuses different layers of the architecture from devises and communication layers (e.g., ethernet, LANs, WANs, etc.) to applications (e.g., the Web, Google, etc.). The internet is not a single network, but a collection of networks not all TCP/IP-based and not all supporting WWW-based applications. The important “accidents” of history include the DoD decision to adopt ARPANET for its C3I network and push universities off, the decision to adopt the TCP/IP protocols for the NSFNet backbone (connecting the NSF supercomputer centers), the expansion of NSFNet using academic national and international regional networks and the union of existing academic networks (BITNET, UUNET, CSNET, EARN, etc.), Tim Berners-Lee’s adaptation of Ted Nelson’s Hypernet ideas to create the World Wide Web, Marc Andreessen’s MOSAIC browser, the decision to open the government networks to commercial traffic (NREN), and, yes, Al Gore’s efforts to get the federal agencies to consolidate their networks (NSF, DARPA, DoE, NASA, etc.) and his support of the passage of the 1991 High Performance Computing and Communications Act (NREN was part of this). None of this would have happened without a lot of corporate interest, research and innovation (PARC, Cisco, MCI/IBM, etc.), but if left to the dominant 1970s-80s communication sector (AT&T, the PTTs in Europe, etc.), in my opinion, it would not have grown as fast and would not have had the innovative technologies we see today.

    Rick Adrion
    CSNET program manager 1980-84
    NSFNet program manager, 1985-86
    CSNET and CSNET/BITNET merger boards 1986-88
    Internet2 R&D Council 1990-2000

    • 11. alanone1  |  July 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm

      Hi Rick

      I agree with much of what you say, but …

      You need a category between “an inventor” and “evolved”. The Internet most certainly did not “evolve”, it was invented by a group of very smart capable people with lots of technical chops.

      The “innovation” of getting the Internet to spread did indeed require many different hands, and some luck. (This was true for personal computing, and similarly with mixed results — lots of the really good stuff got lost in the cracks and has never come back.)

      I think it’s fair to say that the web “evolved”, and the mess it is pretty much confirms this. Two very large early blunders helped set it on its ragged course, one of which was missing completely what Engelbart had showed in the late 60s.

      The lack of understanding about how difficult above threshold visions get realized, has greatly hurt “edge of the art” research and research funding. Many of the paradigm shifting real inventions in computing were done within “research communities” that used powerful processes of “problem finding” and “building learning curves” to get to the above threshold results.

      I wrote a tribute to the ARPA-IPTO research community — “The Power of the Context” — as part of the Draper Prize doings (this also has an extensive set of references for those who are actually curious enough to want to know what went on, and by whom).

      Click to access m2004001_power.pdf



  • […] Who funded the Internet? I care that you don’t know what it is! « Computing Education Blog. […]

  • 13. Skip Bogsan  |  July 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Does it really matter ?
    My point of view is that people really don´t need to know this kind of detail. Where the water comes from ? Who invented the TV ?
    These are things we use on a daily basis, we love them or depend on them, but I´m not much interested on who created this stuff. I want them improving all the time, I´m concerned with the bills they send to my bank (and here in Brazil they are VERY expensive). Historically speaking, everybody deserves the credit of their contributions to the humanity as a whole and credit to the important roles they had creating this things. But on day-to-day, it will not change the quality of my ISP if TCP/IP was invented by one person or the other.

  • 14. Mark Miller  |  July 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Hi Mark.

    This is not the first time I’ve run into this. I noticed it last year after President Obama’s State of the Union speech. There was this article from Investor’s Business Daily at the time:


    I’ll give it credit where it’s due. The author got the commercial end of the products right, but it was as if the government had no role in creating the infrastructure the products used. The author was oblivious to it, and one might rightly assume the author thought the industry that created the products also created the infrastructure, but with no government involvement.

    At the time, I saw two people in our popular media, including this author, make the case from the President’s comments that he wanted to create a government-run IT industry. I didn’t get that impression at all. I thought that Obama was correct in his use of history, and his stated desire to bring the lessons of it into the present, with regard to technological innovation and development:

    Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs — from manufacturing to retail — that have come from these breakthroughs.


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