Drexel University alumnus Paul Baran, one of the pioneers of the Internet, died March 26 at his home Palo Alto, Calif.; he was 84. His son, David, reported that Baran’s death was a result of complications from lung cancer.
Baran was born in Gordno, Poland, April 29, 1926. When he was two years old, his parents moved to Philadelphia, where he delivered orders for his father’s grocery store. In 1949, he graduated from Drexel University with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering.
He pursued an interest in science with his first job at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where he tested parts of radio tubes for the Univac. After moving to Los Angeles in 1955, he began working on radar data processing systems at Hughes Aircraft.
In 1959, Baran received a Masters degree in engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles. His adviser, Gerald Estrin, told The New York Times that Baran was the first student he ever had who visited the Patent Office in Washington to investigate whether his Masters work on character recognition was patentable.
“From that day on, my expectations of him changed,” Estrin said. “He wasn’t just a serious student, but a young man who was looking to have an effect on the world.”
Baran left Hughes Aircraft, where he worked on radar data processing systems, in 1959 to join RAND’s computer science department. He was working on a survivable communications system in the early 1960s when he developed “packet-switching,” the concept of breaking up a single message into smaller messages called “message blocks” and having these smaller messages travel through different paths and then come together again at their destination. Packet-switching is still how email reaches one’s inbox today.
Due to fears of nuclear attacks on military command and control systems during the Cold War, the need for a resistant communication network became necessary. Baran intended to build a network that was less prone to violent attacks.
In an interview with Wired magazine in 2001, Baran explained the need for an improved communication network, saying, “You had the realization that the phone system couldn’t be trusted. And the fallback, which was high-frequency radio, couldn’t be trusted in a nuclear environment. So a distributed network of ground-wave transmission was one direction of solution … I figured there was no limit on the amount of communications that people thought they needed. So I figured I’d give them so much communications they wouldn’t know what the hell to do with it.”
Baran pitched his idea to AT&T, who at the time had a monopoly on telephone services. The company ultimately thought Baran’s idea was impossible, and rejected it.
The Air Force, however, understood Baran’s idea. In 1969, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency used Baran’s and others ideas to build the Arpanet, which served as a precursor to the development of the Internet.
When asked in the 2001 Wired interview if he ever wished he owned a patent on pocket switching, Baran answered, “No … it would’ve gotten in the way of people using it. That was one of the objectives [of the improved network]: to broaden the access.”
In 1968, Baran left RAND and cofounded the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group specializing in long-range forecasting that still operates out of Palo Alto, Calif.