Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


WSJ in the Ether about Inventing the Internet

Posted on | July 31, 2012 | No Comments

The privatization and commercialization of Cold War technology, a central part of the Reagan Revolution, entered the limelight during the 2012 presidential election with the attention given to the role of government in the economy.

Controversy emerged recently with Gordon Crovitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Who Really Invented the Internet?” Crovitz’s article is part of the backlash to President Obama’s somewhat poorly phrased, but nonetheless accurate assertion, “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.”

Crovitz covers a number of points about the Internet but manages to avoid Al Gore’s “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” CNN quote from the Vice-President.

Instead his major focus is on Xerox and the creation of Ethernet networking technologies at their research and development facilities in Silicon Valley. The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was made famous when its technology was picked over by Steve Jobs for the Macintosh computer. Crovitz’s focus on the importance of Ethernet is an interesting contribution to the study of the evolving Internet but a more in-depth look at this technology does more to illuminate the government’s startup role in the Internet rather than its disprove its participation.

PARC was sent up by Xerox in 1970 to establish leadership in the “architecture of information”, a sufficiently vague but enticing term coined by Xerox CEO Peter McColough. To do that, Xerox itself picked over the expertise and technology created and funded by the government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was created by President Eisenhower in reaction to the USSR’s Sputnik satellite success. One of its major accomplishments was that it literally created the computer science field by funding departments throughout the US university system. It also guided the development of the ARPANET, the first implementation of packet-switched data communications technology, and generally considered the original precursor to the Internet.

Drawing on Xerox’s great wealth surplus, harvested during the 1960s, in part from the Great Society’s new bureaucracies; PARC recruited the brightest of ARPA’s brain trust. Starting with Robert Taylor, the director of ARPA’s main computer division, PARC recruited some of the best people in the emerging computer science field including those with expertise in personal computing and timesharing. Taylor had worked under the famous J.C.R Licklider, the first director of information processing at ARPA and had funded many seminal projects including Doug Engelbart’s NLS project which had invented the mouse. He even hired Larry Roberts who coordinated the ARPANET project and went on to create the ITU’s X.25 protocols that allowed government telcos around the world to offer packet-switching networks for banking and other commercial organizations.

By recruiting some of computer science’s top researchers, Xerox developed the Alto and the Star, two of the first personal computers with a GUI interface, hypertext, and the mouse. But it didn’t have a way of networking them.

So Xerox PARC hired Robert Metcalfe, a Harvard PhD who worked closely with the ARPANET, to develop networking technology to connect its personal computers. Harvard had initially rejected Metcalfe’s proposal to write his dissertation on the ARPANET, so he left to spend some time at the University of Hawaii with the ALOHANET project so he could study their innovative work on data networking. The ALOHANET was a government funded project that experimented with using radio broadcasts between Hawaiian islands to transfer data. There Metcalfe picked up crucial ideas on packet-switching and collision detection from Engineering Professor Norm Abramson that would provide the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation and later for networking innovations at PARC.

Robert X. Cringely interviews Abramson and Metcalfe on how Ethernet was created as part of this hour-long documentary.

Concepts emerging from the ALOHA project led to Xerox’s Ethernet local area networking products. While the ARPANET had solved certain issues related to long distance data communications, Ethernet tackled short-range communications needed in an office or campus environment. It is now not only widely used in wired local area networks but is prevalent in the IEEE 802 series wireless “WiFi” technology used today as well as emergent 4G mobile services used for smartphones and tablets such as the iPad.

Anyone examining the state of modern computer and web technologies has to marvel at the role of human ingenuity, capital markets, and the organizational capabilities. Start-ups and the modern corporation have done an amazing job refining the basic technologies developed by the military and government-funded contractors into the modern Internet. Unfortunately,trying to rewrite government’s role out of its history is not only misleading, but obfuscates important components of the national system of innovation. World War II, the Cold War, and the Space Race were all crucial for the development of the satellites, computers, and microprocessors that help make up the global Internet. Capital markets and enterprise are crucial for important refinements in energy, health, and further developments in information technology and media, but it would foolish to ignore the basic research and practical that emanate from public monies.

PARC was an important intermediary that helped transform years of government investment into workable products. It was part of the inventive complex that captured the imagination of consumers and showed companies how to become more productive. It spawned people like Bob Metcalfe, who went on to start the 3Com company (now part of HP). Several other researchers from PARC such as Charles Simonyi went over to Microsoft to help create Windows and the suite of Office products based on the ARPA/PARC/Apple graphical user interface (GUI). And, of course, Apple is currently the world’s most pivotal economic engine.

Metcalfe, Jobs, along with Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are a few of the main “supply-siders” who drew on the technological and scientific legacy of the Cold War and the associated “Space Race“, as well as other government investments; to create the products and services that propel the global economy and create our modern digital world. The term “Reagan Revolution” has been applied to an extraordinary transfer of wealth from the “public” sector to the private sector, but one that paid off substantially as microprocessors, satellites, and data networks among many other innovations developed by the government were refined for economic consumption and utilization.

Full Disclosure: I took a Satellite Communications class with Norm Abramson at the University of Hawaii when I was working on my PhD with the East-West Center. If one follows on Crovitz’s contention that the Ethernet was the seminal technology creating the Internet, I guess I would have argue that Abramson and the University of Hawaii invented the Internet. 🙂

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2012, July 21). WSJ in the Ether about Inventing the Internet.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor the State University of New York (SUNY), Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught 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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