[mailhist-discuss] Who Really Invented the Internet? -WSJ

Suzanne Johnson fuhn at pobox.com
Mon Jul 23 09:08:51 PDT 2012

Following appears on today's Opinion page of the WSJ.

Crovitz: Who Really Invented the Internet?

Wall Street Journal: Professional Edition

JULY 22, 2012

A telling moment in the presidential race came recently when Barack 
Obama said: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. 
Somebody else made that happen." He justified elevating bureaucrats 
over entrepreneurs by referring to bridges and roads, adding: "The 
Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created 
the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet."

It's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The 
myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its 
communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more 
interesting story about how innovation happens-and about how hard it 
is to build successful technology companies even once the government 
gets out of the way.

For many technologists, the idea of the Internet traces to Vannevar 
Bush, the presidential science adviser during World War II who 
oversaw the development of radar and the Manhattan Project. In a 1946 
article in The Atlantic titled "As We May Think," Bush defined an 
ambitious peacetime goal for technologists: Build what he called a 
"memex" through which "wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, 
ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, 
ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified."

That fired imaginations, and by the 1960s technologists were trying 
to connect separate physical communications networks into one global 
network-a "world-wide web." The federal government was involved, 
modestly, via the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency 
Network. Its goal was not maintaining communications during a nuclear 
attack, and it didn't build the Internet. Robert Taylor, who ran the 
ARPA program in the 1960s, sent an email to fellow technologists in 
2004 setting the record straight: "The creation of the Arpanet was 
not motivated by considerations of war. The Arpanet was not an 
Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer 

If the government didn't invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf 
developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet's backbone, and Tim 
Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.

(Image: Xerox PARC headquarters.)

But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after 
leaving ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley 
in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different 
computer networks. Researchers there also developed the first 
personal computer (the Xerox Alto) and the graphical user interface 
that still drives computer usage today.

According to a book about Xerox PARC, "Dealers of Lightning" (by 
Michael Hiltzik), its top researchers realized they couldn't wait for 
the government to connect different networks, so would have to do it 
themselves. "We have a more immediate problem than they do," Robert 
Metcalfe told his colleague John Shoch in 1973. "We have more 
networks than they do." Mr. Shoch later recalled that ARPA staffers 
"were working under government funding and university contracts. They 
had contract administrators . . . and all that slow, lugubrious 
behavior to contend with."

So having created the Internet, why didn't Xerox become the biggest 
company in the world? The answer explains the disconnect between a 
government-led view of business and how innovation actually happens.

Executives at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., were focused on 
selling copiers. From their standpoint, the Ethernet was important 
only so that people in an office could link computers to share a 
copier. Then, in 1979, Steve Jobs negotiated an agreement whereby 
Xerox's venture-capital division invested $1 million in Apple, with 
the requirement that Jobs get a full briefing on all the Xerox PARC 
innovations. "They just had no idea what they had," Jobs later said, 
after launching hugely profitable Apple computers using concepts 
developed by Xerox.

Xerox's copier business was lucrative for decades, but the company 
eventually had years of losses during the digital revolution. Xerox 
managers can console themselves that it's rare for a company to make 
the transition from one technology era to another.

As for the government's role, the Internet was fully privatized in 
1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National 
Science Foundation was closed-just as the commercial Web began to 
boom. Economist Tyler Cowen wrote in 2005: "The Internet, in fact, 
reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here 
for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for 
transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished. . . . In less 
than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created 
one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia."

It's important to understand the history of the Internet because it's 
too often wrongly cited to justify big government. It's also 
important to recognize that building great technology businesses 
requires both innovation and the skills to bring innovations to 
market. As the contrast between Xerox and Apple shows, few business 
leaders succeed in this challenge. Those who do-not the 
government-deserve the credit for making it happen.

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