Updated: Paul Baran, Internet and packet switching pioneer, is mourned

Baran credited with inventing packet switching in 1960s against military backdrop


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.

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 in Palo Alto, Calif.

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 Corp.in  the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s.

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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 Department of Defense's ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which evolved into the Internet. His work, initially conducted at RAND for the U.S. Air Force, led to development of packet switching technologies such as TCP/IP, frame relay and X.25.

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 (who coined the term "packet switching") and Leonard Kleinrock. Baran's ideas are outlined in a report dubbed "On Distributed Communications" published while he was at RAND.

Following his years at RAND, Baran became something of a serial entrepreneur. The engineer 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, among others. 

Early in his career he worked as a technician on the historic UNIVAC 1 computer after graduating from Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University). Baran also earned a master's degree in engineering from UCLA.

Baran's 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. Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe, for example, tweeted about Baran, referring to him as "Entrepreneur, founding director of 3Com, friend..." Technology forecaster Paul Saffo wrote: "Heartbroken at the passing of old friend Paul Baran -- but for his pioneering work, the Internet would not exist."

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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