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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Once upon a time the ARPANET

It is generally recognized that the creation of ARPA was a direct response to the launch of the world's first orbiting space satellite by the Soviet Union. This was a significant part of the US government's response to the Soviet's surprise achievement.
But the mandate of ARPA was not restricted to space research. The US Department of Defense directive number 5105.15 dated February 7, 1958 established "an agency for the direction and performance of certain advanced research or development projects." Congressional authorization followed as part of a bill enacted by the U.S. Congress on February 12, 1957.
While ARPA was originally created to support space related research, this function was soon moved to a civilian agency so that space research would have no apparent military connection. ARPA was thus left to support more general purpose research.

James Killian, who became the President of MIT (1948-1959), and the Special Assistant for Science and Technology to President Dwight D.Eisenhower (1957-1959), is credited with establishing the environment in which ARPA was conceived.
Killian argued to Congress that what was needed was research that would be directed toward new concepts and new principles, rather than toward producing pieces of military hardware.
The computer science research begun at ARPA in 1962, is a significant fulfillment of the objectives set out by Killian as the vision for the new agency.

During the 31 month period that Ruina was the director of ARPA, the computer science program was launched. Computer science was assigned to ARPA as an area for research in June 1961. The program was originally called Command and Control Research (CCR). The objective of this research was to "provide a better understanding of organizational, informational and man-machine relationships and research on information processing techniques and methods, and maintenance of a general purpose computer facility."
By early 1964, the name of the computer science research office at ARPA was changed to the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), to reflect the changes in the research program Licklider had introduced.
The goal of Licklider's program in computer science was to develop the computer in ways other than number crunching. This led to what became perhaps the most significant area of computer development at IPTO.
This involved the recognition that the computer could be a communication device, which led to the research developing packet switching and the ARPANET, and subsequently, the research creating TCP/IP and the Internet .
"Fundamental to the ARPANET, as explained by the [ARPANET] Completion Report, was the discovery of a new way of looking at computers. The developers of the ARPANET viewed the computer as a communications device rather than only as an arithmetic device.
The past 50 years provides a set of achievements demonstrating the importance of the initial vision that Killian and other scientists in the 1950s advocated regarding the importance of basic research.
A common and widespread myth exists that the Internet has grown out of a defense specific objective, i.e. from the goal to create a computer network that could survive a nuclear war. This is a striking example of how a false narrative can spread and gain public credence.
This false narrative finds its roots in the failure to understand that ARPA was not an agency created for defense specific applications, but to support the basic research which would lead to new concepts and ideas.
"The purpose of the military is to support ARPA and the purpose of ARPA is to support research."

This was a period when computer use generally required that the programmer bring a program typed on punch cards to a computer facility, to return several hours later to get a print out of the program's results. This form of computing was known as batch processing.

Liberally taken from Ronda Hauben
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