Why was the internet created: 1957 Sputnik launches ARPA

Geek History explores why was the internet created: 1957 Sputnik launches ARPA

One of the often debated questions is what was the original reason for creating the internet.

1957: Sputnik launches ARPA

With the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, in 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to address the needs of technology research and development.

While many people contributed to the creation of the internet along the way, many of the early contributors to the internet were working on the project on behalf of ARPA.

The catalyst for the creation of ARPA was the launch of Sputnik, along with the tensions of the cold war in 1957. The goal of ARPA was to address the technology needs of the U.S Department of Defense. ARPA would be the parent of the computer network of the ARPANET.

According to the DARPA website:

"For more than fifty years, DARPA has held to a singular and enduring mission: to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security."

"The genesis of that mission and of DARPA itself dates to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and a commitment by the United States that, from that time forward, it would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises."

Is it ARPA or DARPA that created the ARPANET

Throughout this section on the history of the internet we refer to the parent of the internet as ARPA because the computer network that gave birth to the internet was the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). Initially called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the agency is currently called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). What makes the situation more confusing is that ARPA was renamed to DARPA in March 1972, then renamed ARPA in February 1993, and then renamed DARPA again in March 1996. Regardless of the name changes ARPA has always been an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense.

1960s Ideas shaped by the Cold War

One of the crazy thoughts that came out of ARPA was a fault tolerance global communications network. Sure we had telephones and radio, they served the purpose of communications. But the vision was on a much grander scale. Think tanks like RAND contemplated a world wide network of communications that was fault tolerant, that could possibly survive a world war. The Department of Defense was funding the ARPANET, the communications network that evolved into the internet.

The RAND Corporation was founded after the second world war as a research agency for the United States armed forces by Douglas Aircraft Company. RAND became an independent, nonprofit organization, that focused mostly on cold war related military issues.

According to the RAND website on Paul Baran and the Origins of the Internet:

"In 1962, a nuclear confrontation seemed imminent. The United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis. Both the US and the USSR were in the process of building hair-trigger nuclear ballistic missile systems. Each country pondered post-nuclear attack scenarios."

"A looming concern was that neither the long-distance telephone plant, nor the basic military command and control network would survive a nuclear attack."

According to their website RAND is the first organization to be called a "think tank." The RAND name originated as a contraction of Research and Development. RAND continues to operate today as a nonprofit research and analysis institution across a broad range of subjects.

While some people still debate whether the original purpose of the internet was for the military, the internet was originally conceived by the RAND Corporation, a think tank that focused mostly on cold war related military issues as RAND pondered post-nuclear attack scenarios

Why was the internet created?

The Internet Society denies that the Internet was created to survive a nuclear attack. In the footnotes of the Internet Society "Brief History of the Internet" they state: "It was from the RAND study that the false rumor started claiming that the ARPANET was somehow related to building a network resistant to nuclear war. This was never true of the ARPANET, only the unrelated RAND study on secure voice considered nuclear war."

But the February 1993 article on the Internet Society website "Short History of the Internet by Bruce Sterling" begins with the following paragraph:
"Some thirty years ago, the RAND Corporation, America's foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem. How could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear war?"

Various RAND and DARPA statements connecting early Internet projects to cold war fears and the desire to survive a nuclear attack are stated on their website, not part an isolated study.

I grew up in the fields of telecommunications and computer networking, my personal studies of inventor and inventions are in the areas of telecommunications and computer networking technology, so some people might say that my perspective is accordingly biased to relate personal experiences and observations in those areas. Maybe it is not politically correct to say the catalyst for the creation of the Internet was part of post-nuclear attack scenarios, but statements made by RAND and DARPA regarding the mission of the early internet pioneers make it easy to draw that conclusion..