An appreciation for the life of Paul Baran, dead at 84; helped create Internet’s precursor Arpanet.

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by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Fellow citizens of the Internet, one of our Founding Fathers, Paul Baran, has died, at 84,  in Palo Alto, California.

Pray, take a moment from your busy day online and have a kind thought for a man, a brilliant man, so far in advance of his times that he was written off as little more than a kook, his idea science fiction, not practical technology.

This is a story about people who see visions that others cannot see. So often spurned, they must instead be cherished.

This is a story about people who should have known better, whose ignorance and  unwillingness to listen nearly cost the world one of its greatest and most important assets. Thankfully wiser heads prevailed.

This is the story of a man who persisted in the face of rejection, wondering why authorities didn’t “get it”  but determined to persist until they did. He triumphed and we all won.

This is the story of Paul Baran, and it is a fascinating look at how one man’s persistence and unwavering belief can lead to dramatic change and benefits for all.

Born in Poland, April 29,1926.

Paul Baran’s first piece of good luck happened when his Jewish parents emigrated from Grodno, Poland (now in Belarus) May 11, 1928. Had his family stayed in Poland, they would almost certainly have gone to a concentration camp and horrible death. But Paul, his two siblings and parents landed in Boston, then moved to Philadelphia where his father opened a grocery store.

Baran graduated from Drexel University in 1949 (then called Drexel Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, he joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company where he did technical work on UNIVAC models. Baran was lucky again, for these models were the first brand of commercial computers in the USA. He had a heady glimpse of the future, a computer-based future.

In 1955, he moved to Los Angeles and worked for Hughes Aircraft on radar systems. He obtained a Master’s degree from UCLA. His thesis was on character recognition.

Baran then went to work at the RAND Corporation (1955).  There he took on the task of designing a “survivable” communications system that could maintain communications between end points in the face of damage from nuclear weapons. This was the height of the Cold War and America was vulnerable. Most American military communications used High Frequency connections which could be put out of action for many hours by nuclear attack.

Baran decided to automate RAND director Franklin B. Collbohm’s previous work with emergency communication over conventional AM radio networks and showed that a distributed relay mode architecture could be survivable. Moreover, the Rome Air Development Center soon showed that the idea was practical. Paul Baran had a foot on the path that would, in due course, become the Internet we all rely upon and cannot imagine life without.

“Message blocks”.

Still at RAND Corp. Baran next outlined the fundamentals for packaging data into discrete bundles, which he called “message blocks”. The bundles are then sent on various paths around a network and reassembled at their destination. Such a plan is known as packet switching.

Baran’s key idea was to build a distributed communications network, less vulnerable to attack or disruption than conventional networks. In a series of technical papers published in the 1960s, he suggested that networks be designed with redundant routes so that if a particular path failed or was destroyed, messages could still he delivered. He approached AT&T with  the idea to build his proposed network.

AT&/T’s response? “Baloney, your idea won’t work”, and so resoundingly refused.

Had the luck of Paul Baran, the lucky man, run out at last?

Certainly not because Baran had the necessary trait for this unpromising situation: he was dogged, persistent, indefatigable about explaining just what his futuristic invention could do. He never quit.

He needed it all in the face of AT&T’s rooted opposition to Baran’s idea. What they particularly disliked was this:

Baran’s design flew in the face of telephony design of the time, placing inexpensive and unreliable nodes at the center of the network, and more intelligent terminating “multiplexer” devices at the endpoints. In Baran’s words, unlike the telephony company’s equipment, his design didn’t require expensive “gold plated” components to be reliable.

AT&T engineers said over and over that Baran just plain didn’t understand the science and technology. But he did…  far more than the AT&T people who couldn’t see the bonanza in front of them and so threw away the chance to develop — and possibly own — the  Internet, a situation with immense consequences for all of us, not least AT&T which painfully discovered that “big” isn’t always right.

“Paul wasn’t afraid to go in directions counter to what everyone else thought was the right or only thing to do,” said Vinton Cerf, a vice president at Google who was a  colleague and long-time friend of Baran. “AT&T repeatedly said his idea wouldn’t work and wouldn’t participate  in the Arpanet project.”

Arpanet… and vindication.

In 1969, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency built a network that used Baran’s ideas along with those of other communications pioneers, the Founding Fathers and Mothers of the ‘net.

In due course, Arpanet was replaced by the Internet we know. Paul Baran’s crucial invention packet switching still lies at the heart of the network’s internal workings, an insight so valuable that President George Bush gave him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

One of the nicest things to report is that Baran always said, forthrightly, that credit for development of Arpanet and the Internet should always be distributed as widely as possible. Founding People all needed recognition, not just a few. It was a gesture from the heart.

Now one of the great inventors of the age, a man of intelligence and insight is gone. However Paul Baran’s chief invention (amongst his many) lives on, spectacularly so. Lucky himself, we are yet the luckier… for we had him, an avatar for the new, connected world in which we all must make our way. Paul Baran, we have good reason to remember you and rejoice.

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About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc. providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.

Dr. Lant is also the author of 18 best-selling books and conducts daily webinars.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee of The Income Zone.

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