How Democrats Invented the Internet

At a Palo Alto, Calif., breakfast hosted last Thursday by various computer companies, George W. Bush said, “Oftentimes when you listen to the rhetoric out of Washington, D.C., it sounds like some of ‘em up there think they invented prosperity. They no more invented prosperity than they invented the Internet.” Bush has been using this line a lot lately, and Chatterbox thought it might be worth examining.

Let’s set aside the issue of Republican mirth at Al Gore’s expense for saying he invented the Internet. Chatterbox thinks that the vice president, who acquired a propeller-head image a decade ago while advocating development of the “information superhighway,” should get some credit for what we today call the World Wide Web. But Chatterbox is going to yield the point. Republicans have gleefully been noting that the Internet was actually invented 30 years ago, right around the time Gore graduated from college, for Pete’s sake! And it’s true Gore wasn’t a science major.

Still, let’s take a closer look at what Bush said: Washington “no more invented prosperity than they invented the Internet.” If by Washington, Bush means “the government,” he is clearly wrong. The Internet was in fact invented by a Pentagon organization called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which spent taxpayer dollars to develop a system (initially called ARPAnet, later called the Internet) that connected big research computers around the country. It is commonly believed (especially inside the Pentagon) that the chief purpose of ARPAnet was to secure the nuclear defense network by allowing information to travel easily by multiple routes from computer to computer. However, according to Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet, by Stephen Segaller (click here to buy the book), the scientists who used federal money to develop ARPAnet were only incidentally interested in assisting national defense (though they were grateful to have the budgetary justification) and were given great freedom to spend their research dollars as they wished. Here is what one of them, Larry Roberts of Lincoln Lab in Massachusetts, said to Segaller: “What I told Congress was that this was for the future of science in the world–the civilian world as well as the military–and the military would benefit just as much as the rest of the world. It was worthwhile being done under government and military sponsorship, but it clearly wasn’t for military purposes.” In other words, the Internet was invented with government spending that pretended to be for guns, but was really for butter.

Perhaps, by “some of ‘em up there” in Washington, Bush means not “the government” but “the Democrats.” If so, Chatterbox thinks a decent case can still be made refuting Bush. Taking the Republican line that the Internet was invented in 1969, one might perhaps argue that Richard Nixon invented the Internet. Alternatively, one might credit Dwight Eisenhower with inventing the Internet, because it was Eisenhower who, in the midst of the general post-Sputnik fury, created ARPA as a space-technology agency in 1958. (With the creation of NASA that same year, ARPA lost most of its original mission and turned to computers.) More plausibly, though, one would credit ARPA’s Internet work to the Democratic administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, because they occupied the White House from 1961 through 1968, when the bulk of ARPA’s Internet development occurred. Of course, it seems very unlikely that Kennedy and Johnson knew much if anything about what ARPA was up to. However, the prosperity-inventing private sector doesn’t seem to have had a much better clue. Even in the late 1960s, companies such as IBM and Control Data Corporation and AT&T were saying that ARPA’s computer network couldn’t be built. Larry Roberts told Segaller that when he presented the idea in speeches to AT&T engineers, “they booed and hissed.”

It is only fair to point out that big government’s beneficial role in creating the Internet accelerated during the mid-1980s, when anti-big-government Republicans held the White House. As Bruce Sterling observes in a handy online history of the Internet, the National Science Foundation “set a blistering pace for technical advancement” in 1984. George Bush Sr. was vice president at the time, and later was president during much of the final run-up to the invention of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. But Chatterbox thinks it would be a stretch to say that Poppy invented the Internet.