WSJ’s Internet History Is Way Off

on July 23, 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.