Who Invented the Internet, Redux

Who Invented the Internet, Redux

Printer-friendly version
a a
Type Size: Small

You were expecting an Al Gore joke, right?

The eternal “who invented the internet” question is once again in the public eye. After President Obama claimed it flowed from government research, Republican challenger Mitt Romney went on the warpath.

His campaign launched a nationwide ad attacking Obama for denigrating the work of entrepreneurs. “It shows how out of touch he is with the character of America,” Romney said during a campaign stop last week.

The Washington Post fact checker gave Romney’s ad and comments three Pinocchios for ripping Obama’s words out of context. The full quote, reprinted in the paper, showed he was making the point that public works and research have always served as the handmaiden of private sector investment.

It’s hard to quibble with that point. From the Erie Canal in the earliest days of the Republic to the $30.9 billion that the National Institutes of Health pours into biomedical research every year, many an American fortune has been built on a foundation laid with public funds.

But is that also true for the Internet? Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz waded into the big muddy this morning with a column claiming “it's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way,” he wrote.

Relying on Los Angeles Times journalist Michael Hiltzik’s account in his 1999 book, Dealers of Lightning, Crovitz traces the familiar story of how the Pentagon created a limited electronic interface between two computer networks at its Advanced Research Project Agency – the so-called ARPANet. The man who ran the ARPA program in the 1960s, Robert Taylor, then decamped to Xerox’s research arm in Silicon Valley.

In the 1970s, he and his colleagues developed a private network that vastly expanded the limited government version. Xerox’s goal was to allow multiple computers to use the same printer. Stuck in its limited vision of the future, the company lost out to other firms that saw the potential in unlimited computer connectivity, in Crovitz’s telling, proving his theme that nimble private sector actors are the ultimate source of innovation.

“As for the government’s role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed – just as the commercial Web began to boom,” he wrote. “It’s important to understand the history of the Internet because it’s too often wrongly cited to justify big government.”

It only took a few hours for Hiltzik to fire back on the Money & Co. blog on the Los Angeles Times website. “I know Bob Taylor. Bob Taylor is a friend of mine, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that he fully endorses the idea as a point of personal pride that the government-funded ARPANet was very much the precursor of the Internet as we know it today,” he wrote. “Nor was ARPA’s support ‘modest’ as Crovitz contends. It was full-throated and total. Bob Taylor was the single most important figure in the history of the Internet, and he holds that stature because of his government role.”

“It’s true that the Internet took off after it was privatized in 1995,” he concluded. “But to be privatized, first you have to be government-owned. It’s another testament to people often demeaned as ‘government bureaucrats’ that they saw that the moment had come to set their child free.”

So there you have it: snappy comeback to anyone who uses poor Al Gore as a punch line. No, Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet. It was a government bureaucrat.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.