Distributed Data Network Pioneer Paul Baran Dies

By Tracey E. Schelmetic March 28, 2011

Paul Baran, one of three inventors of packet-switched networks who later played a role in the development of the Internet, has died at age 84, said his son. Baran died at his home in Palo Alto, California Saturday night of complications from lung cancer, David Baran told the Associated Press Sunday night.

Baran was born in Grodno, Poland in 1926 and emigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was two years old. The family settled in Philadelphia. Baran did undergraduate work at Drexel University, earned his Master’s degree in Engineering from UCLA in 1959 and began working for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica in the same year.

“Packet-switching” is a process by which data are bundled into small packages and sent through a network. Baran outlined the concept while working on Cold War issues for RAND in 1963 and 1964. He was directed by his employer to design a “survivable” communications system that could maintain communication between end points even in the event of nuclear attack. Baran's previous work with emergency communication over AM radio networks was said to have laid the basis for his task by giving him the idea for a distributed relay node architecture.

In 1969 the technology became a concept the Department of Defense used in creating the Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet, numerous reports on the subject said. The idea had been so advanced at its development that private companies had passed on it.

“Paul wasn't afraid to go in directions counter to what everyone else thought was the right or only thing to do,” Vinton Cerf, a vice president at Google and a colleague and longtime friend of Baran, told the New York Times, which first reported Baran's death.

President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008. A year earlier, he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, joining the likes of Thomas Edison.

He told the AP around the time that he was pleased there was such a hall.

“I think that we give a lot of attention to music and football, why not those who come up with ideas that we use in a different way,” said Baran.

Baran's method of moving data was designed to still function after a nuclear attack. Because there were no centralized switches, and bundles of data could simply find a new route if one weren't working, the system could still work even if much of it were destroyed, the RAND Corporation said on its Web site.

He called the process “message blocks.” Donald Davies of Great Britain independently developed a similar system and his term, “packet-switching,” would eventually be adopted, RAND said.

It would be decades before the social and commercial possibilities of the technology would become clear, and Baran would miss out on a lot of the money and glory that came with it, but he was happy to live to see it happen, his son told the AP in a telephone interview.

“He was a man of infinite patience,” David Baran said.

The son said his father recently shared a paper that he wrote in 1966, speculating on the future of the computer networks he was working on.

“It spelled out this idea that by the year 2000 that people would be using online networks for shopping and news,” he said. “It was an absolute lunatic fringe idea.”




Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TechZone360. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

TechZone360 Contributor

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