Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How IT Came to Rule the World, 1.5: ARPA and NASA

Posted on | March 31, 2010 | No Comments

This is the tenth post in the mini-series How IT Came to Rule the World

After the USSR shocked the world in 1957 with its Sputnik satellite, the US took two major actions that would converge later in the modern Internet as well as a wide range of other technologies, including the microprocessor, the personal computer and eventually the smartphone.

First, it formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish a US lead in science and technology applicable to the military. ARPA drew first on the legacy of computer and data communications development at MIT and other locations. It contracted with a small company, Bolt, Beranak, and Neuman (BBN) to build the first packet-switching network called the ARPANET. ARPA also supported the Aloha System at the University of Hawaii that created a wireless packet broadcasting system that was used to connect computers among the different islands and then via satellites. Later ARPA seeded the formation of computer science departments and research institutes around the country that led to the development of the graphic user interface (GUI) and other technological innovations, including the Internet.

The other, more popularly known government action was the creation of the space program. The US and USSR, both of whom ravaged the Nazi’s V-2 rocket program at the end of World War II, engaged each other in a “space race” to control the German V-2 Rocket skies. Facing a new type of global warfare, President Eisenhower desperately wanted to establish the “high ground” and his New Look policy identified aerospace as the military’s highest priority. In 1958, he created the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and within a week, Project Mercury was approved to place a human into orbit. In the early 1960s, newly elected President John F. Kennedy energized NASA by calling for a “man on the moon by the end of the decade” and the same set of speeches, he called for America’s leadership in international communications. One of the primary goals of the space program was to place communications satellites into space. Additionally, one of the most important by-products of the space race was the miniaturization of electronic circuitry into the technology that would integrate transistors into the microprocessor.

Together these actions would form the institutional foundation for the ARPANET, the precursor of the modern Internet. Reacting to the threat of the USSR’s space endeavors, the US would mobilize its technological and human resource capabilities for a new chapter of the Cold War. Later the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) would help the ARPANET transform into the NSFNET to connect the “artificially intelligent” computers needed for the space defense system. It was the NSFNET that was privatized to create the commercial World Wide Web.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. From 2002-2012 he was on the faculty of New York University. During the 1990s he was also a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. 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, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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