By Richard R. John
Did the government invent the Internet? In a 23 June 2012 Wall Street Journal article, journalist L. Gordon Crovitz answered “no.” “It’s important to understand the history of the Internet,” Crovitz contended, “because it’s too often wrongly cited to justify big government.” Crovitz gave the credit instead to researchers at Xerox PARC who in the 1970s developed the Ethernet to link different computer networks. Their goal was to make it easier to make copies on Xerox’s photocopying machines. The earlier computer network that the US Defense Department had built (the ARPANET) is not “the Internet” because it linked computers, not computer networks.
Is Crovitz right? Only if you anachronistically confine the Internet narrowly to applications popularized since its commercialization in 1995. The basic idea — the linkage in a network of heterogeneous computers that had originally been designed as standalone devices — had been a goal of engineers at the US Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) since 1969. ARPA made a public demonstration of its network in 1972.
Why ARPA wanted to link computers is a complicated story. Computer memory in 1969 was scarce (remember Y2K — two digits for years instead of four?) and the long-distance Bell telephone network was underutilized (largely as a result of government regulation). Government engineers, working in tandem with government contractors, speculated that, if it were possible to link together the computational power of computers hundreds of miles from each other (which at the time were stand-alone machines that operated independently of each other), it might be possible to facilitate the calculations necessary to guide intercontinental ballistic missiles.
They also thought it would be fun to try.
The commercialization of the Internet — which no one envisioned at the time — was an unintended, though largely happy consequence of this government decision. The historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes put it this way: “Throughout the history of ARPANET, we shall discover government funding playing a critical role in one of the opening acts of the so-called computer and information age. The part played by the government, namely the military, in this historical technological transformation raises a perplexing question: is government funding needed to maintain the revolutionary development of computing and is government funding needed to generate other technological revolutions in the future?”
Richard R. John is a Professor at Columbia University in the City of New York and a contributor to To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government, edited by Steven Conn. He is a historian of communications who specializes in the political economy of communications in the United States. His publications include many essays, two edited books, and two monographs: Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (1995) and Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (2010).