The IT Godfather Speaks: Q&A With Charles M. Herzfeld

The former ARPA director remembers spending big bucks on big ideas 40 years ago and deplores the sorry state of IT research today.

Is DARPA still funding the kinds of research that made the U.S. an IT leader? Charles M. Herzfeld, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., has a few thoughts on the matter.

Herzfeld was hired by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in 1961 to head up research in ballistic missile defense, and he became ARPA's fifth director in 1965. He also served as director of Defense Research & Engineering, to which DARPA reports, from 1990 to 1991.

What was your introduction to computing?

 
Charles M. Herzfeld
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Charles M. Herzfeld

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When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, in 1948 or so, John von Neumann came and gave three seminars on electronic computing. He was instrumental in getting the ENIAC built, and he came to tell us about it. It was hugely important stuff, and it changed my life absolutely.

Then, before ARPA, J.C.R. Licklider gave two or three lectures at the Pentagon, and I remember those vividly. He said, "The way we were doing computing is really pretty stupid. I think there's a better way." He was a brilliant man, and I became a disciple of his.

And a few years later, you and Licklider would end up at ARPA, with Licklider the first director of its Information Processing Techniques Office.

Yes. IPTO was one of the things at ARPA that I became godfather of. I was the go-to guy if it got into trouble. [The IPTO] directors changed the world, but I claim to be the godfather, not the father. And as godfather, I took their message to Congress.

What else did you do as godfather?

I signed the first two or three ARPA orders in 1966 and 1967 as director. I said, "Do that -- build a network, however small and crappy it is." Lick was gone by then [he went to IBM in 1964], but I had recruited Bob Taylor as the follow-on.

One day Taylor dropped into my office, and he got $1 million in 20 minutes. He acts like I was sitting in my chair handing out million-dollar checks, but not so. I was sure that networking computers would change computing. I do not claim to have foreseen what happened, but I knew Licklider was on to something.

Did you casually hand out big sums like that very often?

Whenever it was needed. My secret was that I always had money because there was a long list of things we were doing that we didn't have to do. I was ruthless about that.

What else did IPTO do in those early days?

We created the whole artificial intelligence community and funded it. And we created the computer science world. When we started [IPTO], there were no computer science departments or computer science professionals in the world. None.

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