WSJ’s Internet History Is Way Off

by Steve Wildstrom   |   July 23rd, 2012

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page seems to have dedicated itself to showing that every single thing uttered

Photo of Bob Kahnd

Robert E. Kahn (Wikipedia)

by President Obama is at best a misstatement. Today, Gordon Crovitz takes on the President’s statement that the government helped business by creating the internet. Unfortunately, in the process he mangles facts and history.

Lets look at some of the claims:

“The Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.” This statement is attributred to Robert Taylor, who was present at the creation and certainly should know, but lacks any context. ARPAnet was created specifically to connect disparate research networks working on DARPA projects, mainly at universities.

“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.”  Vint Cerf developed TCP/IP jointly with Robert E. Kahn. At the time, both were employed by DARPA. Tim Berners-Lee may have invented the World Wide Web, but the idea of  hyperlinks goes back to Vanevar Bush and Ted Nelson and was extensively implemented in HyperCard well before Berners-Lee’s work.

“ It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks.” This one is a howler. Ethernet was indeed invented by Robert Metcalfe at Xerox PARC. It it was, and remains, a local networking standard. It was tremendously importnat in the development of the internet,  but was never used to link networks together.

The history of the internet is not particularly in dispute and we have the great good fortune that most of the pioneers who made it happen are still with us and able to share their stories. (For example, my video interviews with Cerf and Kahn.) In a nutshell, the internet began as a Defense Dept. research project designed to create a way to facilitate communication among research networks. It was almost entirely the work of government employees and contractors. It was split into military and civilian pieces, the latter run by the National Science Foundation. By the early 1990s, businesses were starting to see commercial possibilities and the private sector began building networks that connected with NSFnet. After initially resisting commercialization, NSF gave in and withdrew from the internet business in 1995, fully privatizing the network.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can look it up in a book–or a web site.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
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  • JDSoCal

    So the earliest antecedents of the Internet and WWW were contributed to by DARPA, i.e., the DOD, i.e., the one successful government program, the military – which Obama now wants to decimate. Got it, Steve.

    Puh-leeze. The Internet and WWW were meaningless, academic nerd toys until large private ISPs like AOL, and later Earthlink, started connecting normal people to it, and businesses began migrating to the Web. And the only reason it took off is because government miraculously stayed the hell out of it and didn’t tax and regulate it to death.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I don’t want to get into a political argument, but ARPAnet was. Oming under a lot of commercial pressure while the AOLs of the world were trying to keep their networks walled gardens. The Internet is a remarkable case of successful technology transfer from the government to the private sector. I don’t know why we can’t celebrate that instead of arguing about it.

      • JDSoCal

        Maybe because of the trillions and trillions government has spent, getting us into insurmountable debt, and which has sucked countless productivity and innovation and growth out of the private sector, Obama has to go back 40+ years to provide a decent example of useful stimulus?

  • JDSoCal

    Follow-up. Cerf was NOT “employed by DARPA” when he first worked on TCP/IP and packet switching. That was done at UCLA and Stanford, between whom the first e-mail was sent. From Wikipedia:

    “(Cerf) left IBM to attend graduate school at UCLA where he earned his M.S. degree in 1970 and his PhD degree in 1972.[13] During his graduate student years, he studied under Professor Gerald Estrin, worked in Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s data packet networking group that connected the first two nodes of the ARPANet,[14] the predecessor[14] to the Internet, and “contributed to a host-to-host protocol” for the ARPANet.[15] While at UCLA, he also met Robert E. Kahn, who was working on the ARPANet hardware architecture.[15] After receiving his doctorate, Cerf became an assistant professor at Stanford University from 1972–1976, where he conducted research on packet network interconnection protocols and co-designed the DoD TCP/IP protocol suite with Kahn.[15] Cerf then moved to DARPA in 1976, where he stayed until 1982.”

    It was clearly guys like Cerf and Kleinrock, working at universities, who helped DOD get ARPANet running, not the other way around.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I don’t want to get into a political argument, but ARPAnet was. Oming under a lot of commercial pressure while the AOLs of the world were trying to keep their networks walled gardens. The Internet is a remarkable case of successful technology transfer from the government to the private sector. I don’t know why we can’t celebrate that instead of arguing about it.

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