It’s Not Just the Internet: How Government Built the Computer Industry

on July 25, 2012

This week, the Wall Street Journal‘s L. Gordon Crovitz wrote a strange column decrying the claim that the U.S. government created the internet as an “urban myth.” Crovitz was quickly debunked by myself and many others. The truth is even deeper. The U.S. high-technology industry, and the computer industry in particular, owe their existence to the government.

Photo of Eniac
A technician changes an ENIAC tube. (U.S. Army)

The computer was a war baby.  The U.S. Army and Navy, needing fast ways to solve the differential equations they needed to aim long-range guns, funded major research projects. The Army effort, at the University of Pennsylvania, yielded ENIAC. The top engineers on the project, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly started their own company (soon sold to Sperry Rand) which built the first “private” commercial computer, UNIVAC.

In addition to being based on ENIAC, UNIVAC incorporated important advances from John von Neumann’s group at the Institute for Advanced Studies as well as work from Maurice Wilkes’ group at the University of Cambridge and Alan Turing’s cryptographic computing efforts at Bletchly Park. All of these efforts were funded by the U.S. and British governments. And the buyer of the first UNIVAC system: The U.S. Census Bureau.

IBM’s work with the Navy was less groundbreaking, but the company moved into electronic computers in a big way after the war. A declassified history of computing at the National Security Agency shows just how deeply the NSA was involved in the design and development of IBM’s 700-series computers. NSA also paid for development of the first supercomputer, the IBM 7030 Stretch, in the late 1950s and its successor, HARVEST. It really wasn’t until the 1960s that commercial demand for computers eclipsed government purchases and the design of those business systems, such as the IBM 1401, 7090, and System/360, was heavily influenced by the work that had been done on government contracts.

Government influence was pervasive elsewhere. Jay Forrester’s Whirlwind, the first real-time, distributed system, was originally a Navy project but evolved into the Air Force’s SAGE strategic defense control system. COBOL, the most widely used business programming language for decades, was developed in a private-public partnership led by the Commerce Dept.

It is doubtful that modern supercomputers would exist  had government not financed their development down to the present. IBM now sells Blue Gene systems commercially, but the initial units were built for the Department of Energy’s national labs. The 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world are all at government-owned or government-sponsored labs; No. 1 is an IBM Blue Gene/Q system at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. (And those are just the ones we know about; the NSA does not release any information on its advanced systems.)

None of this is to say that private companies and private investment didn’t play a huge role in the development of the industry. While the government continues to play an important part in funding some of the most advanced developments, its contribution is many orders of magnitude smaller than in the early days. But the ideologically-driven insistance that the government’s role in the creation of the industry was small or non-existent is simply denying a n important and well documented history.