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Yes, Government Researchers Really Did Invent the Internet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” writes Gordon Crovitz in an opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Most histories cite the Pentagon-backed ARPANet as the Internet’s immediate predecessor, but that view undersells the importance of research conducted at Xerox PARC labs in the 1970s, claims Crovitz. In fact, Crovitz implies that, if anything, government intervention gummed up the natural process of laissez faire innovation. “The Internet was fully privatized in 1995,” says Crovitz, “just as the commercial Web began to boom.” The implication is clear: the Internet could only become the world-changing force it is today once big government got out of the way.

But Crovitz’s story is based on a profound misunderstanding of not only history, but technology. Most egregiously, Crovitz seems to confuse the Internet—at heart, a set of protocols designed to allow far-flung computer networks to communicate with one another—with Ethernet, a protocol for connecting nearby computers into a local network. (Robert Metcalfe, a researcher at Xerox PARC who co-invented the Ethernet protocol, today tweeted tongue-in-cheek “Is it possible I invented the whole damn Internet?”)

The most important part of what we now know of as the Internet is the TCP/IP protocol, which was invented by Vincent Cerf and Robert Kahn. Crovitz mentions TCP/IP, but only in passing, calling it (correctly) “the Internet’s backbone.” He fails to mention that Cerf and Kahn developed TCP/IP while working on a government grant.

Other commenters, including Timothy B. Lee at Ars Technica and veteran technology reporter Steve Wildstrom, have noted that Crovitz’s misunderstandings run deep. He also manages to confuse the World Wide Web (incidentally, invented by Tim Berners Lee while working at CERN, a government-funded research laboratory) with hyperlinks, and an internet—a link between two computers—with THE Internet.

But perhaps the most damning rebuttal comes from Michael Hiltzik, the author “Dealers of Lightning,” a history of Xerox PARC that Crovitz uses as his main source for material. “While I’m gratified in a sense that he cites my book,” writes Hiltzik, “it’s my duty to point out that he’s wrong. My book bolsters, not contradicts, the argument that the Internet had its roots in the ARPANet, a government project.”

In truth, no private company would have been capable of developing a project like the Internet, which required years of R&D efforts spread out over scores of far-flung agencies, and which began to take off only after decades of investment. Visionary infrastructure projects such as this are part of what has allowed our economy to grow so much in the past century. Today’s op-ed is just one sad indicator of how we seem to be losing our appetite for this kind of ambition.

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. krohleder 5:14 pm 07/23/2012

    Gordon Crovitz, I am sure, is just trying to re-frame history to fit his ideology. Although I do agree the government, in general, can quite often get in the way of progress, it can also fund and create progress as well.

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  2. 2. txadams 5:47 pm 07/23/2012

    By writing that column, Gordon Crovitz is so subtly proping up the Mitt Romney “out-of-context” band wagon. If you don’t think the Federal Government had a hand in the start up of all internet related businesses then you will need a better example for your master, Mr. Murdoch.

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  3. 3. William_bb 5:47 pm 07/23/2012

    Well, I just think you sir are terrific. You’ve written a clear and concise response and rebuttal of the WSJ piece on the origins of the “Internet”. Well done. It’s kind of ironic because I very much enjoy that particular publication. In this case they were well off the mark. Thank you and again I applaud your terribly precise thinking and analysis.

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  4. 4. Gatnos 6:30 pm 07/23/2012

    Well, I guess this chinches it: The evidence is in…Al Gore did not invent the internet. But I’m truly convinced that he did invent global warming.

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  5. 5. Mujokan 6:54 pm 07/23/2012

    Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn are mentioned in the above article. They said:

    “Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development.

    No one person or even small group of persons exclusively “invented” the Internet. It is the result of many years of ongoing collaboration among people in government and the university community. But as the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work, we would like to acknowledge VP Gore’s contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time.”

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  6. 6. outsidethebox 8:44 pm 07/23/2012

    Its interesting that in the above comments the word Xerox never came up.

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  7. 7. Tim May 9:15 pm 07/23/2012

    I had my first ARPANet account in 1972 or ’73. This was at UCSB, which had been one of the first four nodes, starting in around 1968. It was a truly primitive system, running on Tektronix storage scope displays (at least the particular system we were allowed to sign up for was).

    1972 was also the year I first voted for a libertarian presidential candidate, John Hospers.

    As a a free market libertarian, I fully recognize that many parts of what we now think of as the Internet had roots in ARPA (later DARPA, then back to ARPA, perhaps soon to be GWARPA, the Global Warming Advanced Research Projects Agency?). Also, a lot of contractors (like Bolt, Beranek and Newman, others), a lot of university researchers, a lot of earlier work (like U of Hawaii’s ALOHANet. The Wikipedia article will have lots of references to this work done in the 60s and 70s.

    I think it’s a mistake to say either “government invented the Internet” or to say “government impeded the development of the Internet.” It was a complex ecology, with several major phases and many participants.

    The stuff about Ethernet and Xerox PARC sounds pretty wrong, from the summary here. (I worked at nearby Intel during the 70s and into the 80s.)

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  8. 8. berick 11:28 pm 07/23/2012

    “Today’s op-ed is just one sad indicator of how we seem to be losing our appetite for this kind of ambition.” An indicator, too, of how much the WSJ has abandoned accuracy for ideological propaganda.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 12:18 am 07/24/2012

    What internet are you referring to? When it comes to the internet I’m just a pedestrian, but I recall IEEE Communication society research regarding physical networking that referred to ARPAnet as a wide-area peer-to-peer communications network supplied to academians’ working on defense related research projects and other military contractors. As I understand, applications were centered around simple messaging…

    Xerox PARC’s Ethernet peer-to-peer network seems to me to have been used to develop more sophisticated workgroup applications, but I’m no expert here, either.

    Thirdly, I think it can be argued that the internet really didn’t amount to much until hypertext mark-up languages or ‘web browsers’ were developed – I don’t recall much about that now, either…

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  10. 10. Mujokan 5:35 am 07/24/2012

    Obviously research institutions like Xerox PARC and Bell Labs were crucial in development in this area. And obviously private universities also made a big contribution.

    That is not being denied. The question is why some people say taxation is not justified at all, or is justified only for extremely limited applications such as national defense.

    There is one (unanswerable IMO) line of argument against this view, resting on the complex dynamics of markets. That is also not on topic.

    The argument here is that you are part of a bigger system, which you have benefited from, which has been painstakingly established over centuries, which is clearly morally desirable in terms of “the pursuit of happiness”, and which you have an unavoidable moral obligation to aid in return.

    This is essentially a “social contract” argument. You can justify it through 18th Century rights-based morality or utilitarianism. If you are religious, you can easily enough find admonitions in any major religion to the effect that you should contribute to your society.

    As an example of this, one can talk about government involvement in basic research. If you want to describe all the benefits this has brought us, you will need to write a book.

    Transparent, accountable government is the framework that permits economic markets to work. It has been communally created over the last 200 years for the purposes of making things more efficient and fairer. It is the means to the ends of stably functioning markets.

    The problem now is not excess government action. We are in a recession, after all. The problem is the STATE of Western representative democracy. It has been corrupted by the blind pursuit of personal wealth.

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  11. 11. Chryses 6:33 am 07/24/2012

    In summary: “… That is also not on topic.”

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  12. 12. Mark656515 9:55 am 07/24/2012

    Gee, I thought everyone knew the Internet was invested at CERN. In Europe.

    And that government was responsible for most of the basic research that later companies make billions on. But I wholeheartedly agree with Republicans wanting to reduce government and its costs. Could start by disbanding the military-industrial complex, surely the largest single cash sink, and revert to civil militias like George Washington wanted to. Certanly could trim down now the Cold War is over and allow civilians a better life, who knows a decent welfare state and a European style Social Democracy, and stop glorifing violence.

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  13. 13. sjw999 2:12 pm 07/24/2012

    Its a sad state of affairs that journalists and indeed the average american today puts politics ahead of everything else. The Internet was not invented to help or hinder the current presidential election, and its history shouldn’t be adjusted to produce propaganda for political ends. Even the comments here on SciAm can’t leave 2012 politics out of it. RIP Science.

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 2:42 pm 07/24/2012

    “Gee, I thought everyone knew the Internet was invested at CERN. In Europe.”

    That’d be really funny if it weren’t for all the press releases & other media pronouncements made by CERN claiming precisely that…

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  15. 15. jgrosay 4:55 pm 07/24/2012

    I’d say that the Minitel terminals sold and operated by France Telecom did almost the same most people does today thru the web, and this existed in 1989, when the CERN’s html protocol, and then the upgrading by the technical progress in the field of semiconductors and integrated circuitry that produced more powerful personal computers, allowed the jump to what is today the internet. The whole thing came through the addition of many not so small steps ahead, but the CERN’s contributions may be considered the core that allowed the liftoff of the invention.

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  16. 16. aliceparker 6:17 pm 07/24/2012

    I was THERE almost at the beginnings of the ARPANET. I could log on to USC-ISI computers from Carnegie-Mellon in 1975 over the ARPANET. I could “chat” with single-line texts with anyone else also logged on the same server (TOPS-10 OS). Before the WWW I could shop at JCPENNEY on Prodigy.

    Al Gore did not invent the Internet but he made possible legislation that allowed the ARPANET to be more publically available. Lots of others in the US govt helped in this regard. As an innovation, the Internet has been realized by many scientists, policy makers and some private industry innovation. Vint Cerf was a key individual along with Bob Kahn and the DARPA/ARPA organization that made this possible. Without them there would be no Internet.

    Mujokan above in the comments said ” The problem now is not excess government action. We are in a recession, after all. The problem is the STATE of Western representative democracy. It has been corrupted by the blind pursuit of personal wealth.”

    I could not have said that better. I am saddened that the WSJ has become a part of that corrupted process.

    But, on a happy note, I am sitting at my macbook, with innovations made possible by Xerox, Apple, Berkeley, and many others, and think it is wonderful that the evolution of modern digital electronics has been fueled by university innovation, visionary corporate leadership, and a generous source of funding from the US government. The intertwining of corporations, universities and the government that has supported such innovation should be supported and acclaimed, without political agenda.

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  17. 17. jefffrane 6:52 pm 07/24/2012

    “Thirdly, I think it can be argued that the internet really didn’t amount to much until hypertext mark-up languages or ‘web browsers’ were developed – I don’t recall much about that now, either…”

    You must have missed Usenet entirely. There was an enormous number of conversations about tech, beer, politics and smut… among hundreds of other topics. A lot of people participated and would certainly assure you that the Internet amounted to a heck of a lot.

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  18. 18. XQZME 10:29 pm 07/24/2012

    Mujorka – wrong – it was not people IN government, it was people working ON government contracts as the article says. I worked on one such DARPA contract in 1965 at Systems Development Corporation (spawned by RAND Corp.) We had one of the very first IBM 360s dual 67s and were building one of the very first multiuser operating systems supporting CRTs and trackballs (old hat by then). We were setting up a link between Santa Monica and MIT or Washington D.C. Our biggest challenge was the interface between the General Telephone System in Santa Monica and AT&T in the rest of the country. GTE would not allow us to bring in a 2 mile AT&T line to our research and development facility at 2500 Colorado Boulevard.

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  19. 19. adoarns 11:00 pm 07/24/2012

    It’s not that private industry would have been incapable of inventing a system like the Internet; it’s that their interests run against having an open and openly-architected global internetwork. Compuserve, AOL, and Prodigy were the kinds of computer networks that consumer companies were interested in producing at the time: networks that were strictly controlled, with proprietary clients, protocols, and standards, and that only begrudgingly started allowing access to the broader internet toward the ends of their respective service lifetimes.

    The fact is, the commercial interest in building an internetwork is in controlling it, both administratively and technologically. A global, open internetwork would never have been invented by a private company (at least, not willingly) because it would have cut against their commercial interests.

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  20. 20. DamOTclese 3:20 pm 07/25/2012

    Crovitz was apparently paid to write his uninformed, WRONG opinion about the origins of the Internet, presumably by some right wing corporate politician.

    In the 1970s I was on the DARPANet when we had Archie, Veronica, Gopher, and the concept of a web was still being developed.

    We voted on whether we should create the alt.* series for UUCP USENET so that we could have discussion forums that did not have topics, did not have charters, and did not have moderators (now every idiot on alt.* thinks there are topics and every n00b demands “you’re off topic!” which is twice amusing when n00bs demand they can create “charters” for alt.* newsgroups as if they could be enforced. We specifically created the alt.* series to eliminate such controls.)

    Not long after we then voted to decide whether we would allow commercial access to the network. We had “Planet Connect” and a few other MODEM banks set up shop to afford non-university, non-government access to the network but until then we had only academic access and we voted to allow commercial access which opened the floodgates to what we have today: spammers, trolls, porn, photographs of felines, and the *occasional* academic usage. :)

    I can see why some right wing corporate dung heap out there might want to pretend that the Internet we created was not at core a governmental effort that required literally the effort of hundreds of thousands of individuals working hundreds of millions of hours to bring the state of technology to where it is today. Given the treasonous right wing politics in the United States today such lunacy should be expected.

    What Crovitz might have noted was the Open Source effort that has been taking place for decades and the way that corporations have seized control of some of themost successful open sourced projects which originated at the hands of basically hackers (old school term, not new school.) That would have been more aligned with Crovitz’s right wing loon bias however he chose not to do so.

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  21. 21. 6:48 pm 07/25/2012

    One problem with both the article and the subsequent comments is that they do not go back far enough in time to the origins of the technology/technologies that provided this kluge we know today as the Internet. The WSJ article wants to deal with the post hoc commercialization of the Internet and ignores the early work of the government research labs; the universities, and the government funded R&D industrial organizations that provided both the ideas and the cohesive structure that made it work. If the readers really want to know how it all began they could go to that ancient edifice called a library and look-up the Scientific American article (circa 2000)with the title: “The Origins of Personal Computers.” Also,among the key contributors to the Internet who was overlooked in both the WSJ article and the Scientific American reader’s comments is J.C. R.Licklider.So while at the library they may also want to read Licklider’s seminal IEEE article (“Man-Computer Symbiosis”) that provided the philosophic keystone for linking concept to technology for what eventually became known as the Internet.


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  22. 22. jstahle 11:29 pm 07/26/2012

    Read all about it – the internet – in RFC1000 written by one who was there from the very beginning, Stephen D. Crocker.

    “The procurement of the ARPANET was initiated in the summer of 1968 … There had been prior experiments at various ARPA sites to link together computer systems, but this was the first version to explore packet-switching on a grand scale.”

    BTW: www – not the internet/ARPA – originated in CERN.

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  23. 23. rvbinder 4:47 pm 07/27/2012

    My perspective on how the Internet evolved.

    It wasn’t just Arpanet.

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  24. 24. zaphod44 5:09 pm 07/27/2012

    I think it’s Vinton Cerf, not Vincent.

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  25. 25. acharya 12:18 pm 07/30/2012

    Lest we forget, Government is needed to defend a society and invest in the common good.That Govt has been used in the past few decades to fight private wars in Iraq or Afghanistan for the benefit of the few is hard to deny. If one carries to an extreme the anti government line (the right wing agenda) it will certainly lead to a decline of the U S A and a betrayal of the ideas of Jefferson and Lincoln. This article is apposite and shows how the U S Government has advanced the interest of the society! The article deserves much praise!

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  26. 26. jscottu 10:15 am 07/31/2012

    A more interest and pertinent question would be “who uses research dollars more efficiently…government or the private sector”. It is no contest. The government does take stolen money and spend it on research and produce things from time to time. But anyone who believes that today’s internet is a product of the government is kidding themselves.

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  27. 27. upload70 11:12 am 10/6/2012

    and the gov pretty much owns it today, it’s the greatest thing ever for spying on your own citizens.

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  28. 28. kenroth 11:28 pm 10/9/2012

    crovitz must be a revisionist. first, there was arpanet and then there was what developers thought would be a common ground for research universities to share data regarding research developments. what it became instead was a way to share human and personal stories, via email, and this surprised folks, though we’ve seen facebook has completely capitalized on that niche realization recognized long before the Internet was the Internet. second, as for privatization of development or infrastructure, it was almost all university and government supported. I ran a media lab for a consortium of colleges when the Internet became public. content was almost wholly from public sources. there wasn’t privatized anything. it was only after the bubble burst in 2000 that business really and finally embraced the Internet. without government and academe the Internet wouldn’t exist outside of limited use, probably, by government and top tier research universities.

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