Myth #15: The Internet was invented by the Pentagon and designed to survive a nuclear attack.
Myth: Fuelled largely by the early writings of Silicon Valley gossip columnist Robert Cringely in the early 1990s, a popular belief has sprung up that the Internet was invented in the Pentagon in 1969 and was designed to survive a nuclear attack. In fact, this assumption is so widespread that you could call it “the big bang theory of Internet origins”.
Busted: It’s not surprising that people began to believe that, in a Cold War scenario, a project of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would have a military purpose. But in fact that was not the case with Arpanet, which was essentially established for a purely functional computing science purpose of allowing mainframe computers (military or otherwise) to communicate with each other. It was all about finding a way to share data between disparate systems.
The facts about Arpanet come from the person who was in charge of the project from its inception in 1966 until late 1969, Bob Taylor. To quote correspondence with him: “In February of 1966 I initiated the ARPAnet project. I was Director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) from late ’65 to late ’69. There were only two people involved in the decision to launch the ARPAnet: my boss, the Director of ARPA Charles Herzfeld, and me. The creation of the ARPAnet was not motivated by considerations of war. The ARPAnet was created to enable folks with common interests to connect with one another through interactive computing even when widely separated by geography”.
Despite a number of online exchanges with other people working on the ARPAnet project, this fact has not been disputed or challenged. So in fact Arpanet had nothing to do with nuclear war (except perhaps in a sense that better computing capabilities would enhance military capabilities). Arpanet was simply about trying to solve a common problem in those days – getting computers with disparate operating systems to communicate with each other. Similar efforts were under way in France (Louis Pouzin and the Cyclades Project) and United Kingdom (Donald Davies, National Physics Laboratory). From these sources came the concept of packet switching, which Arpanet adopted at a later stage as a way to transfer packets of data from one computer to another.
Later on, in 1973, another important addition to this work was the introduction of the TCP/IP transport protocol, invented by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. Other important early work was undertaken at Xerox Parc Laboratories by John Schoch and Robert Metcalfe. All of these developments came together to give us the early technical foundations of the Internet. Experts differ in their interpretations of the importance of these related developments and as to which (if any) can be considered to be the primary origins of the Internet.
Truth: Whatever role you wish to attribute to Arpanet as regards the origins of the Internet, it is clear that the early Internet was not motivated by considerations of nuclear war, but by a need for technical protocols to allow computers (and their users) to communicate. ARPAnet was primarily an early computing science exercise, rather than a military one.
Source: Robert Taylor and others (posted by Dave Farber), Dave Farber’s Interesting People Mailing list (October 2004 archives), https://seclists.org/interesting-people/2004/Oct/index.html; Ian Peter, Internet History Site, https://www.nethistory.info.