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Internet pioneer Paul Baran dies

Packet switching? It'll never catch on

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Paul Baran, one of the pioneers of packet-switched networking, the basis for the internet, has died in his home in California aged 84.

Baran devised the concept at the RAND Corporation, working under contract to the US Air Force. The idea of dispersing data around a mesh-like topology, that required the client node to reassemble it, was considered a violation of common sense (and physics) at the time, and was to be regarded a marginal and eccentric pursuit for the next 25 years. But Baran was able to justify it to the military, arguing that a dispersed and decentralised network would continue to function after centralised networks had failed.

A British engineer who had worked with Alan Turing, Donald Davies, also came up with the same architecture at the UK’s National Physics Laboratory in 1965, independent of Baran and unaware of his work. It was Davies who coined the term “packet-switching” and whose input helped shaped the first American implementation sponsored by the US military’s R&D division ARPA.

ARPANET went live in 1969, by which time Baran had left to found a thinktank and consultancy, the Institute for the Future. He subsequently founded a slew of technology companies including Packet Technologies and Metricom, and still continued to be actively involved in founding new start-ups – the most recent being Ethernet over wireline outfit Plaster Networks, and the IP TV infrastructure company GoBackTV. “I have all the fun an 11-year-old would have,” Baran told a reporter last year.

You can find an account of a recent Baran talk here, and a longer oral history here (pdf). ®

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