[dba-Tech] Who Invented the Internet?

Arthur Fuller fuller.artful at gmail.com
Wed Jul 25 07:37:04 CDT 2012

Gordon Crovitz: Who Really Invented the Internet?Contrary to legend, it
wasn't the federal government, and the Internet had nothing to do with
maintaining communications during a war.

A telling moment in the presidential race came recently when Barack Obama
said: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made
that happen." He justified elevating bureaucrats over entrepreneurs by
referring to bridges and roads, adding: "The Internet didn't get invented
on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies
could make money off the Internet."

It's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is
that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up
even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how
innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology
companies even once the government gets out of the way.

For many technologists, the idea of the Internet traces to Vannevar Bush,
the presidential science adviser during World War II who oversaw the
development of radar and the Manhattan Project. In a 1946 article in The
Atlantic titled "As We May Think," Bush defined an ambitious peacetime goal
for technologists: Build what he called a "memex" through which "wholly new
forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative
trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there

That fired imaginations, and by the 1960s technologists were trying to
connect separate physical communications networks into one global network—a
"world-wide web." The federal government was involved, modestly, via the
Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. Its goal was not
maintaining communications during a nuclear attack, and it didn't build the
Internet. Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPA program in the 1960s, sent an
email to fellow technologists in 2004 setting the record straight: "The
creation of the Arpanet was not motivated by considerations of war. The
Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or
more computer networks."

If the government didn't invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf
developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet's backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee
gets credit for hyperlinks.

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Xerox PARC

Xerox PARC headquarters.

But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving
ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s
that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks.
Researchers there also developed the first personal computer (the Xerox
Alto) and the graphical user interface that still drives computer usage

According to a book about Xerox PARC, "Dealers of Lightning" (by Michael
Hiltzik), its top researchers realized they couldn't wait for the
government to connect different networks, so would have to do it
themselves. "We have a more immediate problem than they do," Robert
Metcalfe told his colleague John Shoch in 1973. "We have more networks than
they do." Mr. Shoch later recalled that ARPA staffers "were working under
government funding and university contracts. They had contract
administrators . . . and all that slow, lugubrious behavior to contend

So having created the Internet, why didn't Xerox become the biggest company
in the world? The answer explains the disconnect between a government-led
view of business and how innovation actually happens.

Executives at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., were focused on
selling copiers. From their standpoint, the Ethernet was important only so
that people in an office could link computers to share a copier. Then, in
1979, Steve Jobs negotiated an agreement whereby Xerox's venture-capital
division invested $1 million in Apple, with the requirement that Jobs get a
full briefing on all the Xerox PARC innovations. "They just had no idea
what they had," Jobs later said, after launching hugely profitable Apple
computers using concepts developed by Xerox.

Xerox's copier business was lucrative for decades, but the company
eventually had years of losses during the digital revolution. Xerox
managers can console themselves that it's rare for a company to make the
transition from one technology era to another.

As for the government's role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995,
when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science
Foundation was closed—just as the commercial Web began to boom. Blogger
Brian Carnell wrote in 1999: "The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic
free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government
had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but
it languished. . . . In less than a decade, private concerns have taken
that protocol and created one of the most important technological
revolutions of the millennia."

It's important to understand the history of the Internet because it's too
often wrongly cited to justify big government. It's also important to
recognize that building great technology businesses requires both
innovation and the skills to bring innovations to market. As the contrast
between Xerox and Apple shows, few business leaders succeed in this
challenge. Those who do—not the government—deserve the credit for making it

*(Note: This column has been altered to correct the misattribution of Brian
Carnell's quote.)*

A version of this article appeared July 23, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S.
edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Who Really Invented
the Internet?.

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Prediction is difficult, especially of the future.
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