Monday, October 11, 1999
UCLA celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Internet last month, in observance of the first time that digital bits were passed between machines using a computer called an Interface Messaging Processor
Many Deserve Credit for Creating the Internet
By GARY CHAPMAN
(... director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
UCLA celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Internet last month, in observance of the first time that digital bits were passed between machines using a computer called an Interface Messaging Processor, or IMP, in the Boelter Hall laboratory of computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock.
UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale said at the Sept. 2 event, "The Internet has many fathers who claim to be responsible for this child," and photographs of several of these "fathers" were shown on a large screen.
After the celebration, however, a few of these "fathers" expressed some annoyance over how the early history of the Internet is being described these days.
"The UCLA event furthered some controversy that has been stirred up over the past six years," said Bob Taylor, a retired research laboratory director who headed labs for both Xerox Corp. and Digital Equipment Corp. Taylor led the effort that produced the ARPAnet, the forerunner of the Internet and the project that funded and built the IMP computers at UCLA and other institutions.
"The team concept is not getting enough credit," said Taylor, who cited the contributions of the team in Cambridge, Mass., at Bolt, Beranek & Newman that built the first IMP computers in early 1969.
Another early founder of the ARPAnet, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote recently: "As the staggering impact of the Internet has become apparent, a number of individuals have been shamelessly elbowing their way into the limelight, claiming far more than their share of credit for helping to bring it all about. Many people contributed to the experiment that blossomed into the Internet. Although a very few prescient individuals actually had a vision, albeit somewhat imprecise, of what the future might hold, most just worked from day to day on their part of the effort.
"Watching a few individuals and institutions now puffing themselves up beyond all recognition and trying to bend history to the needs of their personal ambition is both disheartening and irritating. In part, such behavior is the product of a society in which notoriety has become a sort of summum bonum. And the media, contributing to this foolishness and craving oversimplification, tend to heed the loudest voices."
"In my opinion," said J. Strother Moore, a professor of computer science at the University of Texas, "Bob Taylor is not getting enough credit. I rarely see his name in the newspaper when the history of the Internet is discussed. He, perhaps more than anyone, deserves the credit for the vision that created the Internet."
Severo Ornstein, one of the original Bolt, Beranek & Newman team that built the first IMPs, concurred. "It was Taylor's vision, his tenacity, and his perseverance that built the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet," Ornstein said. "Without him, we probably would not have developed the system."
Taylor was named director of the Information Processing Technologies Office of the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1966. He worked with ideas developed by his predecessors in that position, J.C.R. Licklider and Ivan Sutherland, to promote a visionary project based around the then-novel concept that computers are primarily communications devices, not just number-crunching machines.
Taylor and Licklider wrote a famous and landmark white paper, "The Computer as a Communications Device," (http://memex.org/licklider.pdf) in April 1968. When Taylor took over the office in 1966, he convinced ARPA Director Charles Herzfeld that the agency should fund a project in computer communications, and that project became the ARPAnet.
"The ARPAnet began in 1966, not 1969," Taylor told me last week. "There's some revisionism going on today."
To be sure, most of the "fathers" of the Internet are generous in their praise and acknowledgment of all the numerous people who contributed to its development. But institutional public relations departments have tended to promote their own affiliated individuals as the key contributors, fostering a "celebrity model" of technological history instead of the team effort it was.
Many people feel Taylor is not getting enough credit, however. He doesn't have a public relations machine working for him.
"I'm doing fine," he said with a chuckle. "Not enough other people are getting their share of credit."
In the 1970s, Taylor went on to lead the famous Computer Systems Laboratory of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the most renowned and prestigious lab in the history of computer science. There he assembled the all-star team that created computer networking, desktop publishing, laser printers, the graphical-user interface and modern word processing, among other innovations.
"Taylor has a sixth sense about what needs to be done and how to do it," Ornstein said.
Moore said that when he reflects on who should get credit for the Internet, he thinks first not only of Taylor at ARPA but of Taylor's lab at Xerox PARC. "Bob Taylor is the finest research laboratory manager this country has ever produced," he said.
What does Taylor think of the Internet today? "I'm surprised it's taken so long to get to where we are," he says. The industry made many mistakes in the past that slowed development of the Internet, such as the fact that it's only been recently that networking has come to personal computers, he said.
"Everything the Internet is being used for today was anticipated," he said. "Except for its pornographic implications--I didn't anticipate that."
Taylor believes that the biggest challenge ahead is to make using the Internet "a right and not a privilege."
"We sometimes refer to the Internet as the 'information superhighway,' " he said. "But using the highway is a right, not a privilege. Now, using the Internet is a privilege, and that should change."
Taylor thinks the government has a role in helping change this, perhaps by making the Internet part of universal service for all citizens.
UCLA has every reason to be proud of its early contributions to the Internet. But all Americans should be grateful for the vision of Bob Taylor and many other technology innovators who deserve to be household names.