Was Arpanet Created to Bear Nuclear War?

Whether in a class at school or even university, a documentary on television or an anecdotal note in some technology magazine, we have heard at some point in our lives that Arpanet, the predecessor network of the Internet, was born as a computer project capable of bearing the consequences of a nuclear war, even if a simple Google search is made by typing the phrase: “TCP/IP Arpanet”, among the options displayed will appear as a result ” TCP/IP Arpanet Nuclear War”.

Is it True that Arpanet Had an Anti-Nuclear Military Purpose?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.(www.galevy.com) and Alejandro Acosta (Lacnic) – Joint article promoted by Andinalink and Lacnic

Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), was the first computer data network – WAN -, which worked based on a system of information packet exchange known as “packet-switching”, and was consolidated for this purpose through a protocol called TCP, which in essence allows the fragmentation of information into multiple packets, these two technologies being the origin of what we know today as “Internet” [1].
According to available historical records and the accounts of its creators, the idea or concept of a computer network with the ability to communicate users located on computers, distant from each other, was formulated in April 1963 by Joseph C. R. Licklider[2], who is considered one of the fathers of computer science and who, working with Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN)[3], a company specialized in research and development of state-of-the-art technology, jointly elaborated a document that proposed the creation of a great system of computer interconnection, which they called, “The Galactic Network”[4].

A Project Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense – DOT

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known by its acronym DARPA, [5] is an agency attached to the U.S. Department of Defense and is largely responsible for the development of new technologies focused on military use.

In October 1963, DARPA (at that time called ARPA), convened Joseph C. R. Licklider[7] to present the results of his research, which allowed him to convince computer scientists Ivan Sutherland and Robert “Bob” Taylor[8], about the importance and scope of their research, but more importantly, about the need to create a large computer network[9].

As director of Information Processing Techniques Office – IPTO – of ARPA, and convinced of the work led by Licklider, the computer scientist Robert “Bob” Taylor, raised with the back then director of ARPA, Charles Herzfeld, the possibility of connecting the computers that were part of the United States Department of Defense, seeking to optimize resources and the flow of information.

“Robert Taylor, had a brilliant idea based on the ideas proposed by J. C. R. Licklider: Why not plug all those computers together? By building a series of electronic links between different machines, researchers who were doing a similar job in different parts of the country could share resources and results more easily” Analysis published by @Wicho in the Microsiervos portal [10]

One of the most relevant aspects of Taylor’s gamble is that he did not focus exclusively on the interconnection and sharing of resources, but sought from the outset to ensure interoperability between different types of machines, regardless of compatibility between them, creating in the process a protection against failure, something that could only be achieved if the network structure was decentralized, so that if one computer failed, the others could continue working [11].

The idea as a whole appealed to Herzfeld, who allocated an initial budget of one million dollars (equivalent to 8 million dollars at the present time) for the development of this decentralized and fail-safe network due to interoperability problems.

According to an entry for the month of March 1964, in the Internet chronology maintained by Larry Roberts,
“The joint work of MIT researchers, together with the contribution of Licklider, Kleinrock and Roberts, allowed Arpanet’s project to gain momentum” [12].

As part of this investigation, in an email exchange held between Alejandro Acosta, co-author of this article, and Vint Cenf, a Stanford computer scientist who was part of the Arpanet project, there is a reference to Larry Roberts where he assures that:
“It was clear to him that ARPANET was intended to support resources, that is, a network designed to share.”


Fighting the Myth

The RAND Corporation, in the early 1960s and in the context of the height of the Cold War [13], began work on designing a type of secure communications network capable of surviving a nuclear weapons attack for military purposes. At the head of this research was Paul Baran [14] who proposed the following, in a paper presented in 1962 and published in 1964, “The use of a decentralized network with multiple paths between two points; where the division of complete messages into fragments would follow alternative paths and the network would be able to respond to its own failures” [15].

By 1964, Professor Leonard Kleinrock, professor at the University of UCLA in California [16], wrote a book called Communication Nets [17], in which he proposed the theory of packet switching in network interconnection, which was compared in 1968 with the research that Paul Baran and Donald Davies had been developing in the same direction, “Those who independently reached conclusions similar to those of Kleinrock [18]”and which served together as inspiration for the development of Arpanet’s decentralized architecture, although there is abundant literature, it is impossible to determine with total certainty what level of influence Baran’s research had on the final design of the model proposed by MIT.

One year later, at 10.30 pm on October 29, 1969, Professor Leonard Kleinrock himself sent the message “LOGIN” from his SDS Sigma 7 computer to the SDS 940 team at Stanford Research Institute. The message was cut out to a strange “lo”, as there was a transmission failure, but an hour later the Stanford machine received the complete word “Login”, thus producing the first connection between computers, formally giving rise to the network: ARPANET, which in less than two years already had more than 70 computers connected[19].

The TCP protocol appeared a few years later, but would not be perfected until the early 80’s [20].

Baran’s influence on the project

Although Paul Baran’s original designs had a clear military purpose to ensure the survival of the interconnection system in the event of a nuclear attack and although the ARPANET project was funded by the United States Department of Defense through DARPA, the impossibility of determining with certainty the level of influence that Baran’s studies had on the final design and the lack of a specific request to researchers for the design of a network with these characteristics, (according to his own statements):

It is NOT possible to assure that the decentralized design of ARPANET had a purpose related to nuclear survival, being this a widely spread MYTH throughout history.

Notwithstanding the above, it is important to note several key points:

On one hand, the myth has its origin in demonstrable historical facts that coherently justify the assumption underlying it.
The first is that military funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Department of Defense through DARPA.
The second is that it occurred in the context of the Cold War at a time when espionage was one of the government’s greatest concerns, so that the confidentiality of the same and the secrecy that frames it, undoubtedly played a preponderant role in order for the true intentions to be possibly classified.

Finally, the research of Paul Baran may have influenced the final result of the project in one way or another, which could have caused the researchers of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to end up working for this cause without being fully aware of it.

In conclusion, although it is clear that in a strict sense and historical rigor, ARPANET and the Internet itself were not created as networks designed to survive a nuclear attack, since its design of fragmented packages was the sum of a series of coincidences, the search for stability and the optimization of resources, the fact that Paul Baran, as one of the leading experts of the time, was working at RAND Corporation on a secure communications network capable of surviving a nuclear weapons attack for clear military purposes and that all the development of the network had occurred in the context of the Cold War, but above all, that the ARPANET project would have been financed with military resources from the DARPA agency, shows that the “MYTH”, is not absurd from a contextual perspective and represents an important part of the problems of the historical moment and it is very likely that if these developments had not occurred in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear threat that underlies it, they would hardly have found the funding that the project required.

Links and sources that support this article
[1] Note published by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia on the Origin of Arpanet and the Internet
[2] Encyclopedia Britannica article on Joseph Licklider
[3] Wikipedia article on Bolt, Beranek and Newman BBN
[4] Article by La Nación Newspaper from Argentina about the 50th anniversary of Arpanet
[5] Encyclopedic article about DARPA on Wikipedia
[6] Article by Xataca on the origin of the Internet and Arpanet
[7] Unofficial biography of Joseph Licklider published as part of research at the University of Murcia
[8] Biography of Robert Bob Taylor on Wikipedia
[9] Unofficial biography of Joseph Licklider published as part of research at the University of Murcia
[10] Analysis of the specialized portal MicroSiervos about the origin of the Internet
[11] Article by Xataca on the origin of the Internet and Arpanet
[12] Link to the document published by Larry Roberts
[13] Muy Historia article on the origin and context of the Cold War
[14] Encyclopedic article about Paul Baran on Wikipedia
[15] Wikipedia article on the origin of the Internet
[16] Link to UCLA Website
[17] Communication Nets: Stochastic Message Flow and Delay, Leonard Kleinrock, ISBN 0486151115, 9780486151113, 224 pages
[18] Analysis of the specialized portal MicroSiervos about the origin of the Internet[19] Article by Xataca on the origin of the Internet and Arpanet
[20] Article: IP Protocol Challenge – ionos.es specialized portal

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