Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


“Survivable Communications,” Packet-Switching, and the Internet

Posted on | April 29, 2023 | No Comments

In 1956, President Eisenhower won reelection in a landslide a few months after he signed the legislation for a national interstate highway. Although heavily lobbied for by the auto companies, Eisenhower justified the expensive project in terms of civil defense, arguing that major urban areas needed to be evacuated quickly in case of a USSR bomber attack. The year before, the USSR had denoted the infamous hydrogen bomb with over 1000 times the destructive force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A significant concern dealt with the possibility of a Soviet attack taking out crucial communications capabilities and leaving U.S. commanders without the ability to coordinate civil defense and armed forces. In particular, crucial points of the national communications system could be destroyed, bringing down significant parts of the communications network.

The need for a national air defense system fed the development of the first digital network in the 1950s called the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), which linked a system of radar sites to a centralized computer system developed by IBM and MIT. Later called NORAD, it that found itself burrowed into the granite of Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountains. The multibillion-dollar project also created the rudiments of the modern computer industry and helped AT&T enter the data communications business.

While Lincoln had set up a telegraph room in the War Department outside the White House, but President McKinley was the first U.S. president to centralize electronic information in the White House. During the Spanish-American war, at the turn of the century, McKinley followed activities in both the Caribbean and Pacific through text messages coming into Washington DC over telegraph lines. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 made obvious the new need for a new command and control system to effectively coordinate military activities and intelligence. President Kennedy’s face-off with Nikita Khrushchev over the deployment of Russian missiles off the coast of Florida in Cuba sparked increasing interest in using computers for centralizing and controlling information flows.

The result was the Worldwide Military Command and Control Systems (WWMCCS), a network of centers worldwide organized into a hierarchy for moving information from dispersed military activities and sensors to the top executive. WWMCCS used leased telecommunications lines, although data rates were still so slow that the information was often put on magnetic tape disks and transported over land or via aircraft.[1] Unfortunately this system also failed during the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel in 1967. Orders were sent by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to move the USS Liberty away from the Israeli coastline. Despite high-priority messages sent to the ship sent through WWMCCS, none were received for over 13 hours. By that time, the Israelis had attacked the ship and 37 of the crew were killed.

In strategic terms, this communications approach suggested a fundamental weakness. Conventional or nuclear attacks could cut communication lines, resulting in the chain of command being disrupted. Political leadership was needed for the flexible response strategy of nuclear war that relied on adapting and responding tactically to an escalating confrontation. The notion of “survivable communications” began to circulate in the early 1960s as a way of ensuring centralized command and control as well as decreasing the temptation to launch a preemptive first strike.

Paul Baran of RAND, an Air Force-sponsored think tank, took an interest in this problem and set out to design a distributed network of switching nodes. Baran had worked with Hughes Aircraft during the late 1950s, helping to create SAGE-like systems for the Army and Navy using transistor technology.[2]

Baran’s eleven-volume On Distributed Communications (1964) set out a plan to develop a store-and-forward message-switching system with redundant communication links that would be automatically used if the others went out of commission. Store-and-forward techniques had been used successfully by telegraph companies. They devised methods for storing incoming messages on paper tape at transitional stations before sending them to their destination or the next intermediate stop when a line was free. At first, this was done manually, but by the time Baran confronted this issue, the telegraph companies were already beginning to use computers.[3] But this was only one part of the solution that would form the foundation for the Internet.

While Baran’s work focused more on making communication links redundant, the trajectory of his work increasingly encountered the need for computer-oriented solutions. AT&T had already built a distributed voice network for the Department of Defense organized in “polygrids” to address survivability. Called AUTOVON, the network tried to protect itself by locating the switching centers in highly protected underground centers away from urban areas. Baran studied this system and discovered three major weaknesses. The first was that although AT&T’s distributed system had switching nodes that were dispersed; the decision to switch was still located in a single operations control center.

The second problem was that the system was largely manual. Operators monitored the network from a control center, and if traffic needed to be rerouted, they would instruct operators at the switching nodes with the proper instructions. The third problem was maintaining the quality of the transmission. A message would have to be rerouted many times before it reached its final destination, increasing the chances of transmission problems. His solution was a computerized network with both digital switching and digital transmission. Instead of the routing decisions coming in from a staffed control center, the nodes would make the switching determinations themselves. The messages would need to be broken up into discreet packages that could be routed separately and resent if a problem occurred.

The proposed solution was packet-switching technology. This yet-to-be-devised equipment would transmit data via addressed “packets” or what Paul Baran called initially “message blocks.” Digital bits were organized into individual blocks of information that could travel separately. Instead of single dedicated lines for continuously transmitting data, packets could be routed through different routes of telecommunications lines. Still using the abstraction of store-and-forward, packets were stored shortly at the next node and switched to the best route to get to their destination. Each packet was equipped with an address as well as the content of the message that could eventually send voice, video, or computer data.

The term “packet-switching” was actually named by Donald Davies of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in England. The British government had spearheaded computer technology to win the Second World War, but in its aftermath, it sought to “win the peace” by cutting down on its military and nationalizing key industries. Having booted Winston Churchill out of the Prime Minister’s office, it started down a long road toward rebuilding its war-torn nation.

It was concerned about using computers efficiently and subsidized programs to develop data communications, but the country could not compete with the U.S.’s Cold War mobilization that shaped computer and data communications through its massive budgets, G.I. Bill, the Space Race, and fear of nuclear attack. The British initiatives were soon outpaced by a newly created military agency called ARPA, dedicated to researching and developing new military technologies for all the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. It would contract out for the realization of Baran’s ideas on survivable communications, creating ARPANET, the first operational packet-switching network.[4]

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2023, Apr 29). “Survivable Communications,” Packet-Switching, and the Internet.


[1] Janet Abbate. (1999) History of the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p. 31.Abbate, J. p. 134.
[2] Founded by the enigmatic Howard Hughes during the Great Depression, the company was a major government contractor. Stewart Brand interview with Paul Baran, in Wired, March 2001. P. 146.
[3] Abbate, J. pp. 9-21.
[4] Abbate, J. pp. 9-21.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University where he taught comparative political economy and digital media. He also taught in Digital Media MBA atSt. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.


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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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