[p2p-research] Building Alliances (history of computer networking)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sat Nov 7 01:00:36 CET 2009

Michel Bauwens wrote:
> Well, it's interesting to see such Hayekian certitude in action, but I'll
> offer a few caveats
> (let me see for starters I recognize the innovation force of the California
> based VC system, and the human and social networks it relies on, as well as
> generous govt funding and support through military research budgets, but
> what borders me is the ideological certainty expressed by the viewpoint to
> the detriment of any more balanced and sophisticated truth)
> On Sat, Nov 7, 2009 at 3:04 AM, J. Andrew Rogers <reality.miner at gmail.com>wrote:
>> Nonetheless, even for advanced software and computer hardware
>> innovations, government funding plays an important role (usually
>> military). Interestingly, it is often because military organizations
>> are more technically savvy than private venture capital and can
>> recognize value that the private markets are ignorant of.
> well said, we would have no internet and no web and not even a browser with
> commercial funding only, they only piggybacked on those major innovations
> after the fact; and you are correctly pointing out to the massive role the
> military is playing; in fact, I've seen different reports arguing that most
> innovation, like in pharma, is really government funded, and then 'given' to
> the private sector; Business Week recently argued that the privatisation of
> innovation in the U.S. has led to dramatic negative results, with real
> innovation slumpling, because companies only look at short term marketable
> rewards
> furthermore, marc dangeard and others have pointed out the weaknesses of the
> current venture capital model, which leaves many good projects un or
> underfunded

I'd like to point out that networked computer communications was invented as 
part of the PLATO project by social business entrepreneur, William C. 
Norris, as CEO of the Control Data Corporation he started.
"Two decades before the World Wide Web came on the scene, the PLATO system 
pioneered online forums and message boards, email, chat rooms, instant 
messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiplayer games, leading to the 
emergence of what was perhaps the world's first online community. ...
  The PLATO system was designed for Computer-Based Education. But for many 
people, PLATO's most enduring legacy is the online community spawned by its 
communication features.
   PLATO originated in the early 1960's at the Urbana campus of the 
University of Illinois. Professor Don Bitzer became interested in using 
computers for teaching, and with some colleagues founded the Computer-based 
Education Research Laboratory (CERL). Bitzer, an electrical engineer, 
collaborated with a few other engineers to design the PLATO hardware. To 
write the software, he collected a staff of creative eccentrics ranging from 
university professors to high school students, few of whom had any computer 
background. Together they built a system that was at least a decade ahead of 
its time in many ways.
   PLATO is a timesharing system. (It was, in fact, one of the first 
timesharing systems to be operated in public.) Both courseware authors and 
their students use the same high-resolution graphics display terminals, 
which are connected to a central mainframe. A special-purpose programming 
language called TUTOR is used to write educational software.
   Throughout the 1960's, PLATO remained a small system, supporting only a 
single classroom of terminals. About 1972, PLATO began a transition to a new 
generation of mainframes that would eventually support up to one thousand 
users simultaneously.

That was even before Doug Engelbart's "Mother of all demos":

But because it was in California, it got a lot more attention than the 
Midwesterners... Not saying Doug Engelbart did not have many innovations.

The first electronic digital computer came from the Midwest too, and I 
attribute part of that to the Midwest farm culture that produced tinkerers, 
which by the 1960s had mostly long disappeared on both coasts.

I can list several networking systems that could have grown instead of Arpanet.
The earliest ideas of a computer network intended to allow general 
communication between users of various computers were formulated by J.C.R. 
Licklider of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) in August 1962, in a series of 
memos discussing his "Intergalactic Computer Network" concept. These ideas 
contained almost everything that the Internet is today.
   In October 1963, Licklider was appointed head of the Behavioral Sciences 
and Command and Control programs at ARPA (as it was then called), the United 
States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He then 
convinced Ivan Sutherland and Bob Taylor that this was a very important 
concept, although he left ARPANET before any actual work on his vision was 
   ARPA and Taylor continued to be interested in creating a computer 
communication network, in part to allow ARPA-sponsored researchers in 
various locations to use various computers which ARPA was providing, and in 
part to make new software and other results widely available quickly. Taylor 
had three different terminals in his office, connected to three different 
computers which ARPA was funding: one for the SDC Q-32 in Santa Monica, one 
for Project Genie at the University of California, Berkeley, and one for 
Multics at MIT. Taylor later recalled:
     "For each of these three terminals, I had three different sets of user 
commands. So if I was talking online with someone at S.D.C. and I wanted to 
talk to someone I knew at Berkeley or M.I.T. about this, I had to get up 
from the S.D.C. terminal, go over and log into the other terminal and get in 
touch with them. I said, oh, man, it's obvious what to do: If you have these 
three terminals, there ought to be one terminal that goes anywhere you want 
to go. That idea is the ARPANET."[2]
   Somewhat contemporaneously, a number of people had (mostly independently) 
worked out various aspects of what later became known as "packet switching", 
with the 1st public demonstration being made by the UK's National Physical 
Laboratory (NPL) on 5 August 1968[3]. The people who created the ARPANET 
would eventually draw on all these different sources.
   By mid-1968, a complete plan had been prepared, and after approval at 
ARPA, a Request For Quotation (RFQ) was sent to 140 potential bidders. Most 
regarded the proposal as outlandish, and only 12 companies submitted bids, 
of which only four were regarded as in the top rank. By the end of the year, 
the field had been narrowed to two, and after negotiations, a final choice 
was made, and the contract was awarded to BBN Technologies on 7 April 1969.

Again, on PLATO:
PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) [1][2] was the 
first (ca. 1960, on ILLIAC I) generalized computer assisted instruction 
system, and, by the early 1970s, comprised some 1,000 terminals worldwide. 
Originally, PLATO was built by the University of Illinois and functioned for 
four decades, offering coursework (elementary–university) to UIUC students, 
local schools, and other universities.
   The PLATO project was assumed by the Control Data Corporation (CDC), who 
built the machines with which PLATO operated at the University. CDC 
President William Norris planned to make PLATO a force in the computer 
world; the last production PLATO system was shut down in 2006 
(coincidentally, just a month after Bill Norris died), yet it established 
key on-line concepts: forums, message boards, online testing, e-mail, chat 
rooms, picture languages, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and 
multi-player games.

PLATO is back online here:

Compare the dates. PLATO was a global network for education while Arpanet 
was still being put out to bid. Granted, it was not the same, but it could 
easily have grown in the direction of the internet.

Beyond PLATO, consider:
* Minitel (France Telecom),
* Augment (Engelbart at SRI)
* Forth (as a network of multi-tasking embedded machines),
* Ethernet and Smalltalk (Xerox),
* Usenet,
* BITNET (IBM, a latecomer),
* Transputers (INMOS, another latecomer),
and others. They all could have grown as systems to become an internet.

But, when the military has so much money and, related to that, credibility 
and staying power, then they tend to get a lot more attention. So, I'm not 
sure it is fair, in a world where so much money gets sucked up and plopped 
into the military's lap, to then say what a wonderful thing the military 
funds stuff like the internet. Few others can do much if all the resources 
go to military projects in the USA. But even given that, several visionary 
people did good computer stuff in the 1960s and afterward, and did it first.

And then there is the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television, all with 
roots in tinkering or commerce.

Granted, these days few companies want to invest for the long term. But back 
when AT&T Bell Labs was around, or during the 1960s and 1970s heyday for IBM 
Research, more basic research stuff was possible at places like that.

Today, a place like Willow Garage is breaking new ground in open source 
robotics (funded by just one person).
I'd try to go work there perhaps, but they are on the other coast from my 
wife's family. Still, that's an issue of money. With a basic income, and so 
no need for a salary, these organizations would have less of a draw as 
unique places (they'd still have some as centers where people have 
hardware), and lots more innovation might happen anywhere (especially around 
university hubs, like created PLATO).

--Paul Fernhout

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