RIP: Paul Baran

By • Mar 28th, 2011
Category: Global Voices, Pune, San Francisco, TechLife - Financial Express

If you use the Internet take a second and remember Paul Baran (84), who passed away over the weekend in Palo Alto, CA. Baran’s name might not ring a bell for many of us but we sure do use what he came up with everyday.

Ever thought how your email is delivered? How does it fly back and forth between us within a blink of an eye? It is technology you say. Right. But dig deeper and at the heart of this technology is something called packets and packet-switching. Ever wondered how packet switching into being? Baran is one of the engineers, who came up with that technical concept in an era of analog thinking way back in the 1960s during the height of the cold war.

“I got very interested in the subject of how the hell you build a reliable command and control system,” Barran once said about his work at RAND Corporation. And that reliable command and control system Baran was talking about was what kind of communication system can survive a nuclear attack.This was in the 1960s and at the height of the Cold War when both the US and the Soviet Union were locked in a fierce arms race and focussed on building cutting edge missiles and delivery systems. This was the decade when the world almost came to the brink of a hot war. (Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?) This is the background and context against which Baran came up with the packet swtiching technology and he talks about it extensively with Stewart Brand in an interview published by Wired.

Wired magazine’s article on Baran is worth reading for a couple of reasons.

The first is how it takes just one person to put their mind and energy into solving a problem and building a solution. And having built a solution then demonstrating the conviction to pull the plug if the idea or innovation is met with resistance or skepticism. This is what Baran did. The article takes you behind the scenes on how big companies sometimes miss jumping on the innovation band wagon. Not everyone recognizes when a new innovation is staring right at them. I suspect this is the story in quite a few Silicon Valley companies that goes un-recorded or unnoticed of how new innovations and new ways of thinking get stymied by people who do not get it. In the case of Baran, ATT did not grok his innovation because they were thinking analog (which was the dominant technology and therefore the paradigm), while Baran was talking and thinking in digital. Compounding the difference was a generation gap as Baran points out in the interview.

The second is at the height of Cold War the nature of relationship between the US and the Soviet Union was not all about being hostile and secretive. Baran highlights how the solution he came up with was well-publicized and not hidden from the Soviet Union. This is a case of the best kept secret is one known to everybody. (Read the article to find out why this was an open secret.)

Baran’s technology was not adopted until the 1970s when the famous ARPANET project came into being and ARPANET then gave birth to the Internet as we know it today.

Baran provided the building blocks for a distributed computer networking system. He went on  to become an entrepreneur and built startups like Stratacom, Metricom among others. His most recent startup was a video networking one.

In 2007 Baran won a National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Thank you Mr. Baran for thinking out of the box.

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One Response »

  1. the charles babbage institute website also has baran’s materials from his days at rand, as well as another interview. imo, it’s better than the wired intvw.

    this man had common sense, humility and the courage to present his ideas to people who not only doubted they were workable, but who opposed their adoption.
    in the interview i read, baran appeared to have had the patience to wait until it could be “done right” before building the network. of course, years later fools rushed in, willing to accept whatever barely worked as “state of the art”, and the rest is history.

    the arpanet people whose names get published so often on the internet, and who are eager to take credit, are not cut from the same cloth. they are attention seekers, they lack the courage baran had and they have received *support* all along, (whereas baran had to continually face opposition), even when the quality of their work product was questionable. the flaws of internet we’ve inherited are directable attributable to them, not baran. and they continue to pass off responsibility by citing “rough consensus” as their guiding principle.
    except of course when something becomes very popular, in which case they are happy to receive credit, with all the humility and maturity of a routinely ignored child who has suddenly won the attention of a room full of adults.

    in contrast, baran was the real deal. he was an innovator, in the true sense of the word.

    if someone asks me “who invented the internet?”, i tell them paul baran.

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