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7/3/2013
12:00 PM
Howard Anderson
Howard Anderson
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20 People Who Changed Tech: The Internet Pioneers

Just as the Internet isn't hierarchical but a peer-to-peer network, so are its "inventors," a gaggle of visionary nerds.



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From left: Paul Baran, Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, Len Kleinrock, Larry Roberts

My father wasn't much for gardening. Our house had a lawn of about 12 feet by 10 feet. He didn't like to mow it and neither did I, so every year he cemented over a little more of it, saying: "A fool and his lawnmower are soon united." But he was voted Man of The Year by the American Concrete Institute.

I bring up this tangential point only because if you asked me what the Most Outstanding Development in Technology has been over the past 200 years, I would have to say the Internet and the World Wide Web.

President Obama has the original patent application and telegraph key from Samuel Morse in the Oval Office, and he tells visitors that "the Internet started here," and of course he's right. But the Internet really was a cumulative and collaborative effort.

Claude Shannon, the Father of Information Theory, did the fundamental theoretical work in data transmission as far back as 1960. J.C.L. Licklider wrote about a future network of computers connected to one another by wideband communications and information retrieval and storage. And let's not forget our friends at the U.S. government who bankrolled the ARPANET and were smart enough to find the best young brains to build it, smarter still to know that they weren't smart enough to build it themselves. In the end, the Department of War/Defense bankrolled both the computer industry and the Internet … and developed Tang!

Satellite Reflection

Just as the Internet isn't hierarchical but a peer-to-peer network, so are the "inventors," a gaggle of wonderful nerds, with no one head and shoulders above the others. They were young: Bob Kahn was 31. Vint Cerf was 26. Len Kleinrock was 34. Larry Roberts was 32. Paul Baran was the senior citizen at 43. Tim Berners-Lee wasn't even born yet ... well, yes he was -- he was 14. Baran's work early on was the foundation that all of the others built on, and Berners-Lee's contribution came after the Internet was up and running.

There was no memorable "Mr. Watson, come here, I need you" or "What hath God wrought" moment. It was Kleinrock saying: "I sent you an 'n' -- did you get it? I sent you a 'p' -- did you get it?" Then the system crashed. There was no major corporation, no single venture capitalist, no long press release.

I knew/know these guys. Their egos were/are under control, and they sometimes seemed surprised at just how important their work was. Let's face it: They were as clueless as we were. The oft-stated "a camel is a horse built by a committee" gets no traction here. The Internet was built by multiple committees. But it worked.

Tim Berners-Lee came later, and he may be the exception. The early Internet/ARPANET was a terrific science experiment. Berners-Lee's WWW, the Internet application upon which most everything was built, came later. No ARPANET, no Internet. No Internet, no WWW.

Yes, Sir Tim did come after the Starting Five, but by then the world knew how important his work was. We will get to that shortly.

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It starts with Paul Baran, a very sweet man asked to think the unthinkable: What would happen to the nation's ability to communicate in the event of nuclear attack? Baran's solution: Tear down the hierarchy and let chaos reign! What he really said was that instead of building the usual hierarchical network, build one based on packet switching, where messages could be broken into pieces and then reassembled. Good start.

Bulb Switch

Baran was the link between the old and the new. His first job was with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Co., which became UNIVAC. Then Len Kleinrock built an unconventional mathematical theory based on Baran's packet switching. Instead of assuming that a circuit switch would always be better, faster and more reliable, he made and proved the assumption that the real key is using repeatability to enhance survivability. The effect was to utilize bandwidth more effectively.

If bandwidth is "free," then you can send and resend parts of a message until they can be accurately reassembled. It's like sending five different messengers to a general in the field. One is bound to get through. Packet switches are kind of like time-sharing -- they take a packet, then another, then another -- while circuit switches are bandwidth hogs. If I'm transmitting and you're receiving, we're underutilizing our resource. Why not load the sucker up and use what is really a time-share kind of solution? Divide the signal, reassemble the signal … and conquer the world.

20 People Who Changed Tech

Baran was a technology revolutionary. His idea was to use cheap and unreliable nodes at the center of the node and push intelligence to edges. Most of the real money made in communications technology during the past 20 years has been by companies that put technology at the edge.

Think of a million ants bringing a piece of bread back to their hill. They take many paths, but they wind up at the same place. That, in a simplistic nutshell, is how packet switching works. The AT&T guys just couldn't believe that using non-dedicated links would ever work, so they pooh–poohed the idea. They didn't really ask the Bell Labs guys, who would have jumped on this idea.

Baran pushed this idea as a solution to nuclear attack and then formed a number of companies to commercialize his ideas. Those companies included StrataCom, which sold to Cisco for $4 billion early in its development and was instrumental in Cisco's dominance. Baran didn't think he should get all the credit for building packet switching; he always swore it was a team effort.

The Starting Five were in and out of academia, starting companies and then sometimes going back to work at a think tank or university. Kleinrock is the exception. He has been a computer science professor at UCLA pretty much ever since he grabbed a Ph.D. at MIT for his work on building a mathematical theory for packet networks. If there was a single starting gun to the Internet, it was when the first message was sent from his lab to Stanford Research Institute's SDS computer. Kleinrock and some of his friends, including Roberts, Kahn and Cerf, had built the first Internet message, sent on Oct. 29, 1969.

Figurine

Larry Roberts took Licklider's 1960 paper and pushed the idea of computer-to-computer communications using data packets. By 1966, he had become the program manager for networks at ARPA. Later, he spun out Telenet commercially, and the company eventually was sold to Sprint and then to Verizon. When Roberts suggested building the ARPANET, the first actual network of computers, he was leading the parade with precious few followers. The first .com address wasn't even registered until 1985 (symbolics.com).

Vint Cerf is the uncle you always wished you had. He was a program manager at DARPA and pushed funding to develop TCP/IP. He then went to MCI, which started the first commercial email system connected to the Internet (MCI Mail). I once gave an award to Cerf for helping create a solution that may do more for world peace and understanding than any development we have seen -- ironic since it was designed for war.

Bob Kahn, one of the developers of TCP/IP, shares with Cerf the designation as Father of the Internet. One of Kahn's relatives was Herman Kahn, whose book, On Thermonuclear War, was the primer that the doomsday boys read early and often. Herman Kahn was satirized as "Dr. Strangelove" by Stanley Kubrick.

Bob Kahn in his own way was as much a futurist as his relative. He gets credit for building on the idea of an open architecture that would let all computers and networks communicate with one another, regardless of hardware or software. I sat on one of Kahn's committees years ago and was amazed at "how out of touch he is" in his predictions about how much bandwidth would be available and at what low price. But he knew; I was guessing.

Laptop in Field

We used to talk about the old Motorola as a "loose confederation of warring tribes." The early Internet was a loose confederation of warring protocols. In fact, when Berners-Lee, now a professor at MIT but then a researcher at CERN, announced the World Wide Web, a few other platforms, including Gopher (see Marc Andreessen's Mosaic browser, later called Netscape), were equally playing to an unknown audience. But the WWW prevailed.

The Internet never created great wealth for the founders, though it made some entrepreneurs and venture capitalists seriously rich. There was always the feeling that the success of the Internet depended on cooperation of companies and researchers. Berners-Lee could have patented the WWW and made one of the greatest fortunes in technology history, but he chose not to. He made the WWW available to the world -- for free!

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, he appeared personally and tweeted: "This is for everyone," which was spelled out in LCD lights attached to the chairs of the 80,000 people at the opening ceremonies.

The early Internet had no pictures, no sound and no motion. Today, half the world's population searches the Internet on a regular basis. There are 1 billion Internet-capable smartphones, and if you assume that every cell phone will soon be a smartphone, we're aiming at 5 billion people.

But we're missing something when we analyze how great men and women brought technology to bear: the very important act of visionary individuals implementing and using all this technology.

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There is an expertise in deploying new technology; IT doesn't happen by accident. The early adopters face skepticism and criticism. Often they're viewed as "too visionary," without their eyes on the here and now.

In the next and last part of this 20-part series, we'll chronicle some of these very smart users and implementers of information technology, those who jump on advancements and tie them to real-life applications.

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