Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Al Gore, Atari Democrats, and the “Invention” of the Internet

Posted on | July 9, 2022 | No Comments

This is the fourth part of a narrative about how the Internet changed from a military network to a wide-scale global system of interconnected networks. Part I discussed the impact of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” on funding for the National Science Foundation’s adoption of the ARPANET. In Part II, I looked at how the fears about nuclear war and Japan’s artificial intelligence (AI) propelled early funding on the Internet. Finally, Part III introduced the “Atari Democrats” and their early role in crafting the legislation in creating the Internet.

This post is a follow-up to make some points about Al Gore and the Atari Democrat’s involvement in the success of the Internet and how political leadership is needed for technological innovation and implementation. What is particularly needed is to draw lessons for future infrastructure, open-source software, and other enabling systems of innovation, social connectedness, and civic-minded entrepreneurship. These include smart energy grids, mobility networks, healthcare systems, e-commerce platforms, and crypto-blockchain exchanges.

The story of Al Gore “inventing” the Internet started after CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed the Vice-President in 1999 and gained traction during the 2000 Presidential campaign against George W. Bush. The accusation circulated that Gore claimed he “invented the Internet” and the phrase was used to tag the Vietnam vet and Vice President as a “liar” and someone who couldn’t be trusted. The issue says a lot about way election campaigns operate, about the role of science and technology in the economy, and especially about the impact of governance and statecraft in economic and technological development. Here is what he actually said:

Of course, the most controversial part of this interview about Vice President Gore’s plans to announce his presidential candidacy was this statement, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” That was turned into “inventing the Internet” and was used against him in the 2000 presidential elections. The meanings are quite different.

“Inventing” suggests a combination of technical imagination and physical manipulation usually reserved for engineers. We do after all, want our buildings to remain upright and our tires to stay on our cars as we ride down the road. To “create” has a much more flexible meaning, indicating more of an art or a craft. There was no reason to say he invented the Internet except to frame it in a way that suggested he designed it technically, which does sound implausible.

Gore never claimed to have engineering prowess but was never able to adequately counter this critique. Gore would win the popular vote in 2000 but failed in his bid for the Presidency. The Supreme Court ruled he had lost Florida’s electoral votes in a close and controversial election in the “Sunshine” state. It’s hard to say how much this particular meme contributed to the loss but the “inventing” narrative stuck, and has persisted in modern politics in subtle ways.

The controversy probably says more about how little we understand innovation and technological development and how impoverished our conversations have been about the development of data networks and information technologies. The history of information technologies and particularly communications networking has been one of the interplay between technical innovation, market dynamics and intellectual leadership guiding policy actions, including military and research funding.

The data communications infrastructure, undoubtedly the world’s largest machine, required a set of political skills, both collective and individualized, to be implemented. In addition to the engineering skills that created the famed data packets and their TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol) protocols, political skills were needed for the funding, for the regulatory changes, and the global power needed to guide the international frameworks that shape what are now often called Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). These frameworks included key developments at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Al Gore got support from somebody generally considered to be the “real inventors” of the Internet. While Republicans continued to ridicule and “swiftboat” Gore for trying to claim he “invented the Internet.” many in the scientific community including the engineers who designed the Internet, verified Gore’s role.Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf acknowledged Gore initiatives as both a Congressman and Senator.

    As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship. Though easily forgotten, now, at the time this was an unproven and controversial concept. Our work on the Internet started in 1973 and was based on even earlier work that took place in the mid-late 1960s.

    But the Internet, as we know it today, was not deployed until 1983. When the Internet was still in the early stages of its deployment, Congressman Gore provided intellectual leadership by helping create the vision of the potential benefits of high speed computing and communication. As an example, he sponsored hearings on how advanced technologies might be put to use in areas like coordinating the response of government agencies to natural disasters and other crises. – Vint Cerf

Senator Gore was heavily involved in the 1980s sponsoring legislation to research and connect supercomputers. Gore was an important member of the “Atari Democrats.” Along with Senator Gary Hart, Robert Reich, and other Democrats, they pushed forward “high tech” ideas and legislation for funding and research. The meaning of the term varied but “Atari Democrat” generally referred to a pro-technology and pro-free trade social liberal Democrat.

Atari was a very successful game arcade, console, and software company in the 1970s. Started by Nolan Bushnell, it gave a start to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, among others. The term began to stick to some Democrats around 1982 and generally linked them to the Democrats’ Greens and an emerging “neo-liberal” wing. It also suggested that they were “young moderates who saw investment and “high technology” as an answer and complement to the New Deal.” [1]

The New York Times discussed the Atari Democrats and tensions that emerged during the 1980s between the traditional Democratic liberals and the Atari Democrats. The latter were attempting to find a middle ground on the economy and international affairs with the Republicans while the former courted union workers, many of whom had shifted to Reagan and the Republicans.[2]

One of the emerging issues pf the time was the trade deficit with Japan whose cars and electronics were making significant inroads into the US economy. Gore and other Democrats were particularly concerned about losing the race for artificial intelligence. The Japanese “Fifth Generation” AI project was launched in 1982 by the country’s Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) that had a reputation at the time for guiding Japan’s very successful export strategy.

Known as the national Fifth Generation Computer Systems (FGCS) project, the AI project was carried out by ICOT, (later AITRG), part of the Japan Information Processing Development Corporation (JIPDEC), the Advanced IT Research Group, (AITRG) a research institute that brought in Japanese computer manufacturers (JCMs), and a few other electronics industry firms. A major US concern was that the combination of government involvement and the Keiretsu corporate/industrial structure of the Japanese political economy would give them a major advantage in advanced computing innovations.

Congress was concerned about the competition over high-speed processors and new software systems that were recognized at the time as a crucial components in developing a number of new military armaments, especially the space-based “Star Wars” missile defense system that President Reagan had proposed as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Any system of satellites and weaponry forming a defensive shield against nuclear attack would need advanced microprocessors and supercomputing capabilities. It would need artificial intelligence (AI).

The likely vehicle for this research was National Science Foundation (NSF), the brainchild of Vannevar Bush, who managed Science and Technology for the US during World War II. That included the Manhattan Project that created the Atomic Bomb. The NSF was formed during the 1950s with established areas of research in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. In 1962, it set up its first computing science program within its Mathematical Sciences Division. At first it encouraged the use of computers in each of these fields and later towards providing a general computing infrastructure, including setting up university computer centers in the mid-1950s that would be available to all researchers. In 1968, an Office of Computing Activities began subsidizing computer networking. They funded some 30 regional centers to help universities make more efficient use of scarce computer resources and timesharing capabilities.

In 1984, a year after TCP/IP was institutionalized by the military, the NSF created the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing, whose mandate was to create several supercomputing centers around the US. [2] Over the next year, five centers were funded by the NSF.

General Atomics — San Diego Supercomputer Center, SDSC
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — National Center for Supercomputing Applications, NCSA
Carnegie Mellon University — Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center, PSC
Cornell University — Cornell Theory Center, CTC
Princeton University — John von Neumann National Supercomputer Center, JvNC

However, it soon became apparent that they would not adequately serve the scientific community. Gore began to support high-performance computing and networking projects, particularly the National Science Foundation Authorization Act where he added two amendments, one calling for more research on the “Greenhouse Effect” and other calling for an investigation of future options for communications networks for connecting research computers. This Computer Network Study Act would specifically examine the requirements for data transmission capabilities conducted through fiber optics, data security, and software capability. The NSFNET decision to chose TCP/IP in 1985 as the protocol for the planned National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) would pave the way for the Internet.

In the Supercomputer Network Study Act of 1986 Gore proposed to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (the Office) to study critical issues and options regarding communications networks for supercomputers at universities and Federal research facilities in the United States and required the Office to report the results to the Congress within a year. The bill got attached to the Senate Bill S. 2184: National Science Foundation Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1987 but it was never passed.

Still, a report was produced that pointed to the potential role of the NSF in networking supercomputers and in 1987 the NSF agreed to manage the NSFNET backbone with Merit and IBM. In October 1988 Gore sponsored additional legislation for “data superhighways” in the 100th Congress. S.2918 National High-Performance Computer Technology Act of 1988 And later H.R.3131 – National High-Performance Computer Technology Act of 1989 sponsored by Rep. Doug Walgren to amend the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act of 1976 and direct the President, through the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (Council), to create a National High-Performance Computer Technology Plan and to fund a 3 Gigabit network for the NSFNET.

It paved the way for S.272 High-Performance Computing and the National Research and Education Network (1991-1992) sponsored by Al Gore that passed and was signed by President George H.W. Bush on December 9, 1991. Often called the Gore Bill, it led to the development of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) and the funding of the National Research and Education Network (NREN).

The Gore Bill began discussion of the “Information Superhighway” that enticed cable, broadcast, telecommunications, satellite, and wireless companies to start developing their digital strategies. It also provided the groundwork for Gore’s international campaign for a Global Information Infrastructure (GII) that would lead to the relatively seamless and cheap data communications of the World Wide Web.

Its $600 million appropriation also funded the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, where graduate student Marc Andreessen and others created Mosaic, the early Web browser that became Netscape. The Netscape IPO started the Internet’s commercial boom of the 1990s.

As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, Gore held hearings on these issues. During a 1989 hearing colloquy with Dr. Craig Fields of ARPA and Dr. William Wulf of NSF, Gore solicited information about what constituted a high-speed network and where technology was headed. He asked how much sooner NSFnet speed could be enhanced 30-fold if more Federal funding was provided. During this hearing, Gore made fun of himself during an exchange about high-speed networking speeds: “That’s all right. I think of my [1988] presidential campaign as a gigaflop.” [The witness had explained that “gigaflop” referred to one billion floating point operations per second.]

It’s not my intention to obsess on the man or the personality. Rather, Gore is interesting because he has been a successful legislator and a mover of public opinion. He can also take credit for much of the climate change discussion. He has worked hard to bring the topic to the public’s attention and mobilize action on markets for carbon credits and the acceleration of developments in alternative energy. His actions and tactics are worth studying as we need more leaders, perhaps “Atari Democrats,” who can create positive futures rather than obsessing on tearing down what we have.


[1] E. J. Dionne, Special to The New York Times. WASHINGTON TALK; Greening of Democrats: An 80’s Mix of Idealism And Shrewd Politics. The New York Times, 14 June 1989, Accessed April 24th, 2019.

[2] Wayne, Leslie. Designing a New Economics for the “Atari Democrats.” The New York Times, 26 Sept. 1982,



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the State University of New York, South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He began his teaching career at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii in the 1990s.


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