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Unplanned parenthood?

by Scott Bradner

The sillyness of the reaction to Vice President Al Gore saying that he created the Internet got me thinking -- is there actually someone that should be credited with creating the Internet? My conclusion is the VP has more right than many to claim to be part of the parental gene pool but there are a few others that share the blame.

It seems to me that there have been a number of key milestones along the path to what we now call the Internet. For each of these milestones there are one or more people that could claim credit - the Internet is a success that has rather many parents.

I'd start with Paul Baran's work in the mid-1960s that lead to the idea of a datagram, router-based network rather than the switched circuit telephone style alternative. The next milestone was the 1968 ARPA request for proposals to create the ARPANET. Clearly Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn deserve a place in the history books for developing TCP/IP in the mid 1970s. As does Jon Postel for tying the whole messy pile together. These are the traditionally cited milestones but I think that three somewhat obscure events were about as important.

In the early 1980s DARPA (ARPA had been renamed by then) funded the University of California Berkeley to add TCP/IP to UNIX and to make it available cheaply - now it was far cheaper to use TCP/IP than to develop a propriety network protocol. Also in the early 1980s a deal was worked out that permitted ARPANET sites which where also CSNET (Computer Science Network) members to open access to the ARPANET to all of their faculty, staff and students. Before this deal we at Harvard had to limit who could use the net, afterward we started exposing generations of students to the wonders of email. Finally Dennis Jennings, who conceived of the NSFNET, made the decision that the NSFNET would only run TCP/IP, minimizing the chance of dueling protocols.

After these the major milestone was the development of the World Wide Web for which Tim Berners-Lee generally gets the lions share of the credit.

So where does Gore fit in? As Senator he helped think of and then led the effort that led to funding for the NSFNET and the High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) Program. These efforts produced a proof of concept for large, fast data networks without which we might still be waiting for the phone companies to deliver ISDN.

These are some of the co-creators of the Internet. None of these people knew what they were doing, in the sense that none of them could have foreseen today's Internet. But without them the world's technological infrastructure would be far poorer today.

disclaimer: Harvard never knows what its doing when educating a student and that’s the wonderful thing about it, but the above are my milestones