Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Factors Supporting Early Computerization and Data Communications

Posted on | January 15, 2020 | No Comments

Several factors contributed to the development of computers and data networking in the early post-World War II era. This post looks at major influences that created the modern realm of computerization and networking of data and information that has transformed the world.

During the war, the first computers were created to calculate tables for artillery ballistics and to help decode encrypted messages. The British developed general-purpose computing technology to break the German’s Enigma-based codes. Eventually, a giant vacuum-tubed computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), emerged as the first completely electronic, general-purpose computer. Although it was completed too late to impact the outcome of war significantly, the promise of its potential made it a celebrity in the mid-1940s.

One major factor that supported post-war economic development was the availability of an electronics infrastructure on the East Coast. Wartime funding, primarily for the development of radar, helped build a complex of industrial organizations and expertise that provided a foundation for the computer and electronics industries. Located primarily in Boston, it stretched out to the IBM’s Hudson River facilities, down through Manhattan and New Jersey’s Bell Laboratories and to Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania. MIT emerged as the primary center of innovation with the development of the early real-time computers, monitors, modems, and time-sharing technology.

A second factor was the invention and sharing of the transistor by Bell Labs. This technology provided the seminal system for the miniaturization of processing power leading to the integrated circuit and later the microprocessor. What helped the process was that AT&T was facing anti-trust action and the divestiture of its manufacturing arm, Western Electric. It consequently decided to share its technology with other companies to avoid serious government intervention in its affairs. Companies such as Texas Instruments, Fairchild, and Motorola were a few of the new licensees. They set out to capitalize on the new invention. The result was a wide variety of inventions starting with missile guidance systems and computers and later consumer products like transistor radios and calculators.

The escalation of tensions with Communist China and the USSR was a third factor. The “Cold War” provided a permanent stream of funding for the development and maturation of information technologies and created the impetus to institutionalize a trajectory that President Eisenhower called the “Military-Industrial Complex.” The support for the industry was extensive, especially from the newly created Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the ultra-secretive National Security Agency (NSA). They literally built hectares of big mainframe computers, as did the Office of Naval Research and government organizations such as the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos.

Related but still deserving of a separate mention was the desire to create an early warning defense system linking computers via telecommunications to an extensive grid of radars around the US and Canada. Created by MIT in the 1950s and built in IBM’s Poughkeepsie facilities, it would later become NORAD and be located deep within the Cheyenne Mountains in Colorado. The project cost the US government billions of dollars at a time that was considered big money. Called Semi-Automatic Ground Environment or SAGE, it created the foundation of the computer industry by supporting the IBM FSQ-7. Burroughs, DEC, and Honeywell were also spinoffs that became viable business computers suppliers. The SAGE technology was instrumental in the development of the IBM System/360 mainframe, released in the mid-1960s to become the re-programmable business computer of choice. It also helped develop the data communications modem and “survivable” communication technology concepts that would later be crucial for the Internet.

Fifth, the formation of ARPA in reaction to the USSR’s Sputnik satellite helped seed computer science departments throughout the US and directly funded the ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. Specifically its Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO) spearheaded an aggressive attempt to develop interactive computer technologies. At first timesharing technologies were developed that shared a mainframe among numerous terminals, Later resource-sharing was created, allowing a terminal to access many different computers in different locations. Add TCP/IP and Hypertext protocols in the next two decades and we would have the modern Internet.

Sixth, the formation of the US space program leading to NASA propelled the development of US rockets and the capability to launch satellites into high orbits. Drawing on Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocketry, the US overcame a weak start to become the leader in the “space race.” The advent of human-crewed space flights served the dual purpose of developing rockets capable of carrying heavy payloads for nuclear warheads and satellites, as well as for harnessing the popular imagination for the future funding of the space program. A global network of communications satellites in the geosynchronous “Clarke Belt” orbit around the Earth and the “New Look” reconnaissance program with remote sensing and surveillance spacecraft effectively utilized space for military and commercial purposes.

The Communications Act of 1962, committed the US to the establishment of Intelsat, an international consortium for satellite communications. Intelsat mobilized national telecommunications organizations from around the world to invest in Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a global communications system based on satellites placed in orbit 22,300 miles in space. Intelsat was quickly transformed into a workable commercial system for voice, video, and later data communications.

Seventh, the refinement of transistors into new “integrated circuits’ that put several transistors on a single “chip” furthered the miniaturization process of information processing. At first, the process was heavily subsidized by government and military projects. The goal to put humans on the moon created the need for a “fourth crewmember,” the Apollo Guidance System (AGS). It was a new set of “miniaturized” guidance technologies utilizing advanced ICs that could control major functions on the Command and Lunar Modules. Also, the implementation of a new defense policy that came to be called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) required a buildup of Minuteman intercontinental missiles. It also gave a significant boost to the subsidization and refinement of new ICs and the eventual development of semiconductor microprocessors with transistors etched into the material.

Eight, the bureaucracies of the “Great Society” created new needs for information processing technologies. Just as the New Deal helped IBM survive the Great Depression by passing the Social Security Act, the growth of the civilian government allowed new companies to prosper. Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems (EDS), for example, earned billions of dollars from Medicaid contracts. Xerox was another company that profited extensively from the Great Society, placing its photocopying machines in a wide variety of bureaucracies. It took part of its profits and invested them in a crucial technological incubation center, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

PARC hired many of the best ARPA-sponsored computer scientists from around the US. It produced many of the seminal technologies crucial for graphical user interfaces, laser printers, local area networking, and object-oriented programming. In exchange for the opportunity to buy Apple shares, it gave Apple Computers much of the technology that went into the Lisa and the Macintosh. Other employees went to Microsoft and 3Com to produce Windows and Ethernet.

These factors reflect the extraordinary investments by the US government during the Cold War and Space Race to building a new infrastructure based on information technologies and data communications technologies. Later, global finance made significant investments to advance these technologies for their purposes. With the introduction of the Internet and World Wide Web, the infrastructure was developed enough to attract widespread commercial investment.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand. He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas and has taught there in the Digital Media MBA program at St. Edwards University He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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