Thursday, October 16, 2008

Did the US government really invent the internet?

As a postscript to a recent blog post about the history of the government's role in technological innovation, I argued that the US government drove the development of the computer not because it was inherently more able to do so efficiently, but rather because it had a monopoly on talent, and the regulatory power to exclude competition. But it turns out that I may have been too quick to concede that government really was the driver behind the Internet. Lew Rockwell lists a whole bunch of private-sector innovations key to the Internet (except I guess the mouse), all of which preceded the Defense Department's ARPANET project, which started only in 1969:

IBM and ATT had major labs and were vitally interested in computers talking to one another as early as the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bell Labs invented UNIX in 1969; it made the internet possible. IBM invented FORTRAN and hard drives in 1956. Bell transmitted packet data over lines in 1958. Texas Instruments invented integrated circuits in 1958. In 1961 Leonard Kleinrock published a paper on packet switching networks. Bell Labs made the first modem in 1961. The mouse was invented in 1963. Digital Equipment Corporation produced the first minicomputer in 1964. In 1965 time sharing at MIT and mail command started. Intel began in 1968. The year 1966 saw the first use of fiber optics to carry telephone signals.

But as Rockwell correctly notes, even these are tainted by the ties between most of these companies and the government in other fields (which in turn might have subsidized and spurred these innovations).

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