Wednesday, January 24, 2001
Scientist will be honored for keeping web untangled
Drexel alum Paul Barans concept was crucial to the Internet.
By Faye Flam
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Baran, 72, who was raised in West Philadelphia, will be honored with this year's $250,000 Bower Award for Achievement in Science for his creation of an arcane concept known as "packet switching."
The award, considered the largest for general science, was announced yesterday and will be presented at the Franklin Institute in April, along with awards for business and various scientific disciplines.
While many people were involved in creating what was to become the Internet, Baran's contribution was particularly crucial.
"He created in his mind an architecture for communications that provided the footprint for the Internet," said Gary Anderson, managing general partner of the venture capital firm TL Ventures in Wayne and chairman of the award selection committee.
Baran made this contribution while at the Rand Corp. think tank during the 1960s.
"Imagine the height of the Cold War in 1959, 1960," he said yesterday from his office in Milpitas, Calif. "The U.S. and Russia were at loggerheads.... It was right before Kruschev said, 'We will bury you' and the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis."
It was clear to Baran and others that whoever made a first strike could win a nuclear war, because the other side would lose communications.
The government realized it had to find a way to keep communication viable in the worst possible scenario.
The telephone system would fall apart because it relied on centralized switches. If the switches go out, there goes your whole system, Baran said.
The scheme I came up with was a way of eliminating any central point in the network - going from node to node to node. That way there would be multiple ways for the same message to reach its destination.
He called the technology packet switching.
Anderson describes the concept as a little like the U.S. mail system, but much faster. If one post office burns down, you route a letter through another one. And, as with a postal system, information would be sent from place to place in packets, marked with the address of its destination.
People thought of all kinds of other solutions to the communications security problem. Some wanted to bury cables deep underground, while others thought of impenetrable bunkers.
Baran's solution was far more simple and elegant.
He said he first wanted to get the telephone companyit was AT&T back thento reconfigure its system using his web-like scheme.
The company opposed the idea, however convinced that the phone system would survive a nuclear bomb.
Meanwhile, computer scientist Bob Taylor and others had conceived of a network of computers, dubbed ARPANET, named for the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency.
To get the pieces of the network to communicate with each other, they used the packet switching idea.
The ARPANET, which was made around 1969, used only a few computers but gradually incorporated hundreds more. It became the Internet when it was combined with other networks in Europe, to become a sort of network of networks.
Baran was born in Poland and moved to Philadelphia at the age of 2. He lived at 62nd and Catharine Streets, and earned his bachelor's degree from Drexel.
After working in several computer-related jobs, he went to Rand in California.
He eventually left to start a new think tank called Institute for the Future, and later started several other ventures of various kinds. Now he runs his own Silicon Valley company, Com 21 Inc., which makes cable modems.
Asked yesterday if he had realized early on that ARPANET had potential beyond transferring scientific and defense-related material, Baran cited a paper that he wrote, "Marketing in 2000," which he presented to the annual meeting of American Marketers in 1966.
In that paper, he said, he described a way people would buy goods from virtual stores.
"You want a drill bit, so you order one over a screen," he said.
It was eerily similar to the real 2000 except that he envisioned this happening through TVs rather than PCs.
"That was a long time ago," he said. "It's fun to pick up the paper and read about it now."
Faye Flam's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Our Gift Shop
back to featured men and women
back to Cultural Center
back to the home page