Happy Birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)

Fifty years ago, a small Soviet satellite was launched, stunning the U.S. and sparking a massive technology research effort. Could we be in for another "October surprise"?

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Licklider sought out researchers like himself: bright, farsighted and impatient with bureaucratic impediments. He established a culture and modus operandi -- and passed it on to his successors Ivan Sutherland, Robert Taylor, Larry Roberts and Bob Kahn -- that would make the agency, over the next 30 years, the most powerful engine for IT innovation in the world.

Recalls Kleinrock, "Licklider set the tone for ARPA's funding model: long-term, high-risk, high-payoff and visionary, and with program managers, that let principal investigators run with research as they saw fit." (Although Kleinrock never worked at ARPA, he played a key role in the development of the ARPAnet, and in 1969, he directed the installation of the first ARPAnet node at UCLA.)

 
Leonard Kleinrock
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Leonard Kleinrock

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From the early 1960s, ARPA built close relationships with universities and a few companies, each doing what it did best while drawing on the accomplishments of the others. What began as a simple attempt to link the computers used by a handful of U.S. Department of Defense researchers ultimately led to the global Internet of today.

Along the way, ARPA spawned an incredible array of supporting technologies, including time sharing, workstations, computer graphics, graphical user interfaces, very large-scale integration (VLSI) design, RISC processors and parallel computing (see DARPA's Role in IT Innovations). There were four ingredients in this recipe for success: generous funding, brilliant people, freedom from red tape and the occasional ascent to the bully pulpit by ARPA managers.

These individual technologies had a way of cross-fertilizing and combining over time in ways probably not foreseen even by ARPA managers. What would become the Sun Microsystems Inc. workstation, for example, owes its origins rather directly to a half-dozen major technologies developed at multiple universities and companies, all funded by ARPA. (See Timeline: Three Decades of DARPA Hegemony.)

Ed Lazowska, a computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, offers this story from the 1970s and early 1980s, when Kahn was a DARPA program manager, then director of its Information Processing Techniques Office:

"What Kahn did was absolutely remarkable. He supported the DARPA VLSI program, which funded the [Carver] Mead-[Lynn] Conway integrated circuit design methodology. Then he funded the SUN workstation at Stanford because Forest Baskett needed a high-

resolution, bitmapped workstation for doing VLSI design, and his grad student, Andy Bechtolsheim, had an idea for a new frame buffer.

"Meanwhile, [Kahn] funded Berkeley to do Berkeley Unix. He wanted to turn Unix into a common platform for all his researchers so they could share results more easily, and he also saw it as a Trojan horse to drive the adoption of TCP/IP. That was at a time when every company had its own networking protocol -- IBM with SNA, DEC with DECnet, the Europeans with X.25 -- all brain-dead protocols.

 
Bob Kahn
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Bob Kahn

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"One thing Kahn required in Berkeley Unix was that it have a great implementation of TCP/IP. So he went to Baskett and Bechtolsheim and said, "By the way, boys, you need to run Berkeley Unix on this thing." Meanwhile, Jim Clark was a faculty member at Stanford, and he looked at what Baskett was doing with the VLSI program and realized he could take the entire rack of chips that were Baskett's graphics processor and reduce them to a single board. That's where Silicon Graphics came from.

"All this stuff happened because one brilliant guy, Bob Kahn, cherry-picked a bunch of phenomenal researchers -- Clark, Baskett, Mead, Conway, [Bill] Joy -- and headed them off in complimentary directions and cross-fertilized their work. It's just utterly remarkable."

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