Ronda Hauben on Thu, 14 Feb 2008 07:13:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> On ARPA's 50th Anniversary

ARPA's 50th Anniversary and the Internet: a Model for Basic Research
                                 by Ronda Hauben

This article was written for Futurezone and appears in German at its
website. Futurezone is the Technology web site for Orf, Austria's
national public broadcast media.The url is ]

 I- Sputnik Gives Birth to Important New Research Advances

On October 4, 1957, the world was greeted with a surprise. There was
beeping from a man- made object orbiting the earth.  This was Sputnik,
a 184 pound object the size of a basketball which was to be the
catalyst for important new changes in our world. One of these changes
would be a significant new means of communications connecting people
and computers around the world.

How a small satellite orbiting our globe on October 4, 1957 would, 50
years later, make possible the digitized information and
communications network we call the Internet, is a significant story.
The subject of this story is, however, not the Internet itself. The
subject of the story is the research agency which made it possible to
create the Internet and other significant computer science
developments. This research agency, the Advanced Research Projects
Agency, or ARPA as it is more commonly known, was born 50 years ago in
February 1958.

This birthday celebration is a fitting time to look back to how ARPA
began and to ask what this history can teach us about the nature of
the kind of research ARPA was created to support and about the
institutional form needed to support such research. Since it can be
argued that important achievements of ARPA supported research include
the Internet of today, and other significant computer science
advances, understanding the origins and development of ARPA can set a
foundation to understand the origins of the Internet and other
computer advances of the past fifty years.

II - Some Background - The actual events of the birth of ARPA.

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." (1) For reasons to be
explained shortly, the director of the agency was to report directly
to the Secretary of Defense. Congressional authorization followed as
part of a bill enacted by the U.S. Congress on February 12, 1957.

III - The Original Mandate

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 had testified at several
congressional hearings in the period before Sputnik, advocating for
the importance of basic research for the US Department of Defense
(DOD). At those hearings, he and others argued that it was critical to
have research that would explore unknown areas in order that the DOD
not fall behind in the military and basic research areas of its
competition with the Soviet Union. Killian believed that new weapons
and weapon systems would require a different form of organization from
the traditional roles and missions that the Department of Defense was
accustomed to.

Killian described how the great technological successes of the U.S. in
World War II such as radar, the proximity fuse, and the creation of
nuclear weapons were due to how the scientific and technical community
functioned even during the war. He drew attention to "the
free-wheeling methods of outstanding academic scientists and engineers
who had always been free of any inhibiting regimentation and
organization. . . Every great research laboratory," Killian proposed,
"must strive to have men of this kind and to provide an environment
analogous to that of the educational institution if it is to be really

Killian believed that the new approaches and weapons systems could not
be spawned by the Military Services themselves. Instead they could
only be expected to "originate in the creative basic research that
takes place in the universities and other institutions where
fundamental new ideas are most likely to be generated."

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. He describes why
creating an environment to support basic research is of critical
importance to the military. "It is" he said, "the yet unanticipated,
not yet conceived discoveries which may determine our military
strength tomorrow, and we must provide the environment from which such
discoveries are most likely to come."

Killian turned the usual argument about basic research and its
relevance to the military on its head. Instead of arguing to support
research with military objectives, he was arguing for the support for
fundamental scientific research because otherwise there would be no
possible breakthroughs that could provide relevant research. Unless
the DOD provided support for such generalized research, Killian
proposed it would fall hopelessly behind its Soviet rival. Similarly,
the prestige which came with being seen as preeminent in science and
technology was critical for the U.S. to maintain its standing in the

Articulating this viewpoint explicitly, Killian explained, "The future
of the United States, to an extraordinary degree, is in the hands of
those who probe the mysteries of the atom, the cell and the stars.
Especially is this true of that tiny part of our creative effort which
we inadequately term basic research."

Before Sputnik, Killian and his colleagues who argued with him for the
primacy for the military of basic research had not been able to have
their advice taken seriously. The launch of Sputnik transformed this
situation fundamentally.

A report written in 1975 to analyze ARPA's successes, known as the
Barber Report after its main author Richard Barber, depicted ARPA as
having been "spawned in an environment where basic research was
equated with military security." Research of a general nature was
argued to be the "wellspring" for the advanced ideas critical in the
long run for the military.

The Barber Report explains that this was the changed environment in
which the U.S. President at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, supported the
creation of ARPA. Just after the launch of Sputnik, Killian was asked
by Eisenhower to recommend how the centrality of basic research could
be implemented. Killian recommended the creation of an agency that
would support 'centers of excellence', flexible funding, and long term
stable environments for researchers. It would be a place where
failures were to be seen as expected, to be learned from, and not, as

This was the vision inspiring the creation of ARPA. Fortunately, in
the field of computer science, this vision found champions and the
result was that the computer research at ARPA succeeded in
revolutionizing the way that computers would be used in the world.

IV - The Politics of ARPA

Part of Eisenhower's motive for supporting the creation of ARPA and
its orientation toward basic research, however, had another rationale.
This had to do with the problem of rivalry between the different
branches of the Military Services.  Eisenhower was opposed to this
rivalry, but the Department of Defense having been created only ten
years earlier, in 1947, was still relatively weak in terms of its
control over the three different branches of the services. The
creation of ARPA could help to centralize the research done by the

The Services competed vigorously with each other in a number of areas,
such as for funding and assignment of new projects. As a result, the
creation and placement of ARPA in the DOD administrative hierarchy
became a source of contention between the services and the Secretary
of Defense.

Similarly, since the results of applied research would affect the
future of each of the branches of the services, the plan to put
applied research in ARPA met with opposition. In recognition of this
political nature of applied research, the Secretary of the Air Force
James H. Douglas said that he was prepared to concede ARPA a role in
basic research but "once you move over the poorly defined line to
applied research, I would object." Such pressures defined the
environment in which ARPA began and developed in its early years. (2)

V - Computer Science is Nourished by ARPA

Despite these obstacles, 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. In order to understand
ARPA's operations, it is helpful to look at the role played by the
Director. There have been several different directors in the course of
ARPA's existence.

The period from 1961-1963 when Jack Ruina was the director is cited as
a particularly formative period. "The Ruina era's legacy," the Barber
Report explains, "was particularly important with regard to the ARPA
style. It set the precedent of a civilian scientists-director and was
characterized by delegation of considerable independence to the
technical officers, recruitment of strong technical office directors,
minimization of bureaucratic functions and limitation of central
program management controls, and stress on quality of staff and

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."

Since in 1961 this was all a new area of research, the services didn't
have established programs and there were thus fewer constraints on the
creation and development of computer science. Ruina soon recruited
J.C.R. Licklider, a highly regarded researcher with expertise in
psychoacoustics, who had done considerable research on human-machine
interaction and computer modeling of the brain's perception of sound.
Licklider believed that advances in command and control aspects of
computing would require fundamental advances in the field of computer
science. He was particularly interested in developing the area of
interactive computing. (3)

Ruina gave Licklider a free hand to create a computer science research
program. Just as Killian would have advised, Licklider began by
creating a set of 'centers of excellence' at several universities,
each of which would focus on a particular area of computing research.
He changed the emphasis which had been on command operational studies,
war game scenarios and command system laboratories to research in
time-sharing systems and interactive computing, computer graphics,
improved computer languages and computer networking.

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. Among the centers of excellence IPTO set up were one at
MIT, known as Project MAC, and one at Carnegie Mellon. Licklider
writes that one center was to "lead the effort to achieve balance in
information technology, to harness the logical powers of computers to
make it truly available and useful to men." The other was to "lead the
effort to achieve fundamental understanding to develop the theoretical
bases of information processing." (4) Subsequently other centers of
excellence were set up, including one focusing on computer graphics.

Though computer networking was part of Licklider's plan for the
research to develop the computer science field, during his first two
year period at ARPA, it was too early for this area of research. The
program initiated by Licklider in computer science led to ARPA being
recognized throughout the field, according to the Barber Report, "as
being the main supporter and perhaps the most important force in the
course of the US and probably world history in the computer.."

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 .

Describing the paradigm change represented by computer networking
research, Michael Hauben writes:

"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. This new view made
building the ARPANET possible. This view came from the research
conducted by those in academic computer science. Such a shift in
understanding the role of the computer is fundamental to advancing
computer science. The ARPANET research has provided a rich legacy for
the further advancement of computer science and it is important that
the significant lessons be learned and studied and used to further
advance the study of computer science." (5)

This perspective shift in how to view the computer, especially in
looking at the computer as a communication device was the basis for
the area of research which represents probably the greatest
achievement of IPTO and of ARPA.

This is the area of research first developing the ARPANET and
subsequently providing the practical and conceptual leadership for the
creation and spread of the Internet. (6)

VI - ARPA and the Struggle Within

Critical to an understanding of ARPA, however, is the understanding
that the struggle both within the agency itself and in the creation
and support for the Agency was a continual battle between the
objectives and practices of the military and the objectives and
practices of the researchers who were working for the IPTO or in its
programs. By the 1970s, the researchers at IPTO were subjected to
serious constraints.

A directive issued on March 23, 1972 by the Department of Defense
replaced ARPA's 1959 charter with a new Charter. The name of ARPA was
changed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This
removed the agency from its original position within the Office of the
Secretary of Defense. The administrative placement of the agency was
changed from where it had been placed to protect it from the
competition of the Services. At the time there was a concern that the
separation of ARPA from the Office of the Secretary of Defense would
weaken it and its independence.

Describing the significance of moving ARPA from the protection of the
Office of the Secretary of Defense, Charles Herzfeld, the director of
ARPA from 1965-1967, writes:

"But one fundamental change to DARPA is more important than all these
vicissitudes. In 1958, the body was designed to be an agent for change
in the Department of Defense, located in the Office of the Secretary
of Defense. In the 1960s, it became stronger and more effective in
this role. Sometime in the 1970s or '80s, the agency shrank to being
an agent for change in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense
for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, which focuses on building
and buying weapons." (7)

Licklider, too, was disturbed by the changes that occurred at ARPA
when he returned as director of IPTO in January 1974. He found that
much had changed. He observed that, "there was really much less
opportunity to initiate things.At that time [the ARPA director-ed] had
a fixed idea that a proposal is not a proposal unless its got
milestones. I think that he believed that the more milestones, the
better the proposal..Milestones had to be written into the proposal
and it was completely rewritten." (8)

In an email message to IPTO researchers in April 1975, Licklider writes:

"[A] development in ARPA that concerns me greatly - and will, I think,
also concern you. It is the continued and accelerating (as I perceive
it) tendency on the part of the ARPA front office, to devalue basic
research and the effort to build an advanced science/technology base
in favor of applied research and development aimed at directly solving
on an ad hoc basis some of the pressing problems of the DOD." (9)

The Barber Report notes again the importance of the organizational
placement of the Agency if the agency is to be able to support basic
research. "During its first decade, ARPA's leadership tended to feel
that the Agency was a unique organization in DOD with special ties to
the Secretary and hence somehow immune from the impact of many forces
and decisions that shape the activities of the Services and other
parts of the Department."

By the post 1967 period, this protected position was changing, so that
ARPA was more constrained than it had been previously.

The authors of the Barber Report are not surprised by the changes, but
they are struck by how little attention is paid to them and "the
relative lack of discussion or debate" among the leadership of the
Department of Defense.

With the celebration of the 50th birthday of ARPA, there is renewed
attention being paid to reviewing the experience of this agency. Such
a review of the experience of ARPA is pregnant with the lessons of the
importance of government support for basic research.

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.

These voices, however, were ignored until Sputnik was launched. Only
then did the necessity for the federal support for basic research
become inescapable. ARPA and its initial orientation toward supporting
basic research is the product of these events.

The organizational structure of ARPA made possible the creation of the
computer science research office within ARPA begun by Licklider. That
office has demonstrated the importance of the support for basic
research in the field of computer science. The IPTO supported a
general area of research, one with a far reaching impact. The
achievements of this research office were not specific defense related
applications, nor were the goals narrowly aimed at defense specific
applications. If this reality is not recognized, however, it is
possible to mistakenly attribute significant computer science
achievements to defense specific objectives.

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

Only then could the new conceptual frameworks become available in
general, and in that context also for defense related developments. If
one starts with the goal of creating defense specific developments,
however, the research is limited and not able to go beyond what is
known at the time.

In summing up this relationship between ARPA, IPTO and basic research,
Alan Perlis, one of the IPTO researchers explains: "We owe a great
deal to ARPA for not circumscribing the directions that people took in
those days. I like to believe that the purpose of the military is to
support ARPA and the purpose of ARPA is to support research." (9)

1- The Barber Report says that the Secretary of Defense actually
issued the directive creating ARPA on February 4, 1957. Unless
otherwise indicated quotes are from the report. The url for the Report

2- Barber Report, p. I-27

3-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

4-Ronda Hauben, "Computer Science and the Role of Government in
Creating the Internet" Part III  "Centers of Excellence and Creating
Resource Sharing Networks"

5-Michael Hauben, "Behind the Net: the Untold History of the ARPANET
and Computer Science", in "Netizens: On the History and Impact of
Usenet and the Internet"

6- Ronda Hauben, "The Internet: On its International Origins and
Collaborative Vision (A Work in Progress)"

7- Charles Herzfeld, "How the change agent has changed", "Nature", vol
451, January 24, 2008, p. 404.

8- Thomas Bartee, ed. Expert Systems and Artificial Intelligence,
Indianapolis, 1988, p. 225. See Ronda Hauben, "Computer Science and
the Role of Government in Creating the Internet" ARPA/IPTO
(1962-1986): Creating the Needed Interface, p. 19.

9- Adele Goldberg, "The History of Personal Workstations", ACM, N.Y.
1988, p. 129.  See also Ronda Hauben,"The Birth and Development of the
ARPANET" in "Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben, Netizens: On the History
and Impact of Usenet and the Internet", John Wiley and Sons, 1997,.

ARPA's 50th Anniversary and the Internet: a Model for Basic Research

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