The myth that government created the internet

Government supporters like to suggest that the internet is a government project. They claim that the computer industry owes its existence to the Pentagon. Neither of these claims is true. The internet grew when the Pentagon took its hands off of it. Computers were developed without the Pentagon.

These inventions have military applications and defense departments have always been very interested in them, but the defense departments did not develop them.
Actually the explosive growth of the internet occurred when the net went civilian and grew out of its military background and control. The defense department control was holding it back. Private capital and ideas poured in. It is true that people at subsidized universities and NSF grants also contributed.

If there had been none of the defense involvement, would the internet have occurred? Yes. Can we say that it was pure free market capitalism? No. We cannot say this because the major companies that would have done this anyway all had defense and government links anyway, such as IBM and ATT.

But the internet would have occurred anyway, and the lure of profits for these big companies played a role. In fact, the defense department’s ARPANET project (started in 1969) only occurred because of earlier inventions by capitalists.

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.

After the defense department got involved, it was still companies like Honeywell and Bolt Beranek Newman (a tiny company) that made headway on making the internet work.

There were only 500 hosts on ARPANET when it split into military and civilian sections in 1983. Then the explosive growth began.

There is much more history than this. I am sure by now there are entire books on the subject and hundreds more major internet developments of which I am blissfully unaware.


7:45 pm on October 16, 2008