Paul Baran, Internet and packet switching pioneer, is mourned

Paul Baran, whose Cold War era invention of packet switching technology helped to lay the foundation for the Internet, has died at the age of 84.

Baran, a native of Poland whose family moved to Philadelphia when he was a youngster, developed his concept of a survivable store-and-forward communications network while at RAND the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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HISTORY: Evolution of the Internet

That concept of packet switching, a digital communications method involving the movement of data divvied up into what Baran called "message blocks" over shared and distributed networks, later found its way into the ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet.

According to RAND, "A looming concern was that neither the long-distance telephone plant, nor the basic military command and control network would survive a nuclear attack. Although most of the links would be undamaged, the centralized switching facilities would be destroyed by enemy weapons. Consequently, Baran conceived a system that had no centralized switches and could operate even if many of its links and switching nodes had been destroyed.

Baran envisioned a network of unmanned nodes that would act as switches, routing information from one node to another to their final destinations. The nodes would use a scheme Baran called "hot-potato routing" or distributed communications."

These ideas were so cutting edge at the time that AT&T rejected them, saying they wouldn't work, according to longtime friend and fellow network pioneer Vinton Cerf, quoted in a New York Times story.

Baran is typically considered one of three people whose contributions led to the development of packet switching, along with Donald Davies and Leonard Kleinrock.

Following his years at RAND, Baran became something of a serial entrepreneur. He founded a long-range forecasting outfit called Institute for the Future in 1968, and in the mid-1980s co-founded wireless Internet access pioneer Metricom (known for its Ricochet service) and later InterFax, Com21 and GoBackTV.

Early in his career he worked as a technician on the historic Univac 1 computer after graduating from Drexel University.

But his accomplishments have not been forgotten by those using some of the latest Internet technology, such as Twitter, where R.I.P. messages made the rounds over the weekend.

Baran's accomplishments have also been recognized through a slew of awards over the years. He was named a National Medal of Technology and Innovation laureate, inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, presented both a Computer History Museum Fellow Award and an IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal.

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This story, "Paul Baran, Internet and packet switching pioneer, is mourned" was originally published by Network World.


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