A neurosurgeon said: ‘If you cut off a piece of the human brain, another part of it will take over the function of the cut off part. This idea was used by Paul Baran who invented a rule that the computer web cannot be centralized but must be based on the structure of the human brain. During the Cold War in America, the man of Polish origin, elaborated a solution based on organizing messages into digital packets. Knowing their addresses, packets are travelling in the web and get to their destination by themselves. These were the beginnings of the Internet.

From Poland to the USA

Paul (Pesah) Baran was born on 29 April 1926 in Grodno (a Polish city at that time)as the youngest of three children in Polish family of the Jewish origin. In order to escape from economic crisis, in May 1928 his family moved to the United States and first settled in Boston, and then in Philadelphia where Paul’s father – Morris Baran(1884 - 1979) was an owner of a small grocery. The life of the family was very hard as there was economic crisis in America at that time, but Paul was a very good student, received scholarship and in 1949 he graduated from Drexel University as an engineer electrician. In a magazine ‘The Almanac’ of 4 April 2007, an interview with Baran was published in which he humorously mentioned the times of his youth in Philadelphia. He said that his fun with technology began when his sister bought him a set of chemical reagents. At that time he made gunpowder and froze mercury in dry ice (constant form of the carbon dioxide) on a table in the kitchen.

The first American computers

After his studies he started working for Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in which he dealt with models of the first commercial computers in the USA. We should know that owners of this company – John Presper Eckert and John Mauchly constructed the first American computer ENIAC in 1946. In 1951 the company introduced the first commercial computer UNIVAC into the market which cost about a million dollars at that time, and required a special room with its own independent power supply, weighed 13 tons and used 125 kilowatts. In 1955 Paul got married to Evelyn Murphy and moved to Los Angeles where he worked for Hughes Aircraft company on radar systems. In the evenings he did MA studies at the Californian University in Los Angeles from which he graduated in 1959 and he wrote his MA thesis about digital recognition of written signs.

Time of the ‘Cold War’

As an MA engineer, in 1959, Paul Baran started working for a scientific centre RAND of Aviation of the United States in Santa Monica, in nearby suburb of Los Angeles. His first project concerned the telecommunication system which could have survived the nuclear attack. When a crisis in Cuba began, everyone in the United States realized the fact that there might be a nuclear war and it was necessary to prepare the country to function ‘a day after’. In relation to it, a few companies (including the RAND) were told to design a telecommunication system which could function and help people and the authority in communication, despite the destruction of the country. This task was given to Paul Baran. He estimated that the American radio web could give information on long waves (AM), provided that a logical digital system was installed in every node, and which would steer the ‘travel’ of a message finding its own way when knowing its destination. Military superiors stated that this web did not have enough output, so Baran elaborated the following rules of the self-steering the web: the web cannot be centralized; every node of the web must have the surplus of nodes which means that every node has to be connected with a bigger number of nodes than it is necessary; messages should be organized in separate packets; messages should be digital not analogue.

A rule of a hot potato, that is, commutation of packets

Baran published the results of his project in RAND in 1964. His principle says that the web cannot be centralized, like the structure of the human brain. The latter one is a dispersed web of neurons connected together. His solution is based on organizing messages into packets (digital envelopes) which find their addresses, travel in the web (steer their directions by themselves). The inventor elaborated algorithm of quick remembering and passing packets in the web. The dispersed web has not got a central point, so it consists of sub-regions of the web, functioning independently on other sub-regions which were destroyed. The perfect concept of Baran is professionally called ‘commutation of packets’. In order to be understandable for the lay people – including the people who were to decide about its financing – in a series of 11 memoranda elaborated in 1964, Baran called it ‘a rule of a hot potato’. The rule is based on the fact that nodes of the web are programmed in such a way so that they would like to get rid of packets of data as quickly as possible and pass it to the next node – which is described in the headline of a packet as the target addressee, or the one to which it leads. However, if this way is not accessible or overloaded, the potato gets to another node and becomes its trouble, etc. till the packet gets to the addressee through a roundabout way.

The beginning of the Internet

The concept of Baran was undertaken in the 60s of the XX century by the Defence Department of the United States as ARPANET. In autumn 1969 the web ARPANET matched four scientific centres – three in California and one in Utah - and the first messages was sent on 29 October 1969 at 10.30. in 1972 Paul Baran recommended the Defence Department to divide ARPANET into MILINET (for military purposes) and INTERNET for civil purposes. His recommendation was accepted but implemented not earlier than in 1983. And it was a real beginning of Internet.

A visionary

On the website one can find one more historical document by Baran, that is, a thesis entitled: ‘Marketing in the year 2000’ which he presented in December 1967 at a meeting of the American Association of Marketers. The documents raises admiration for foresight of Paul Baran. The inventor announced that the average man would have an access to a computer used as ‘interactive automatic system of transforming information, allowing an individual user to have a quick connection with a big base of information’. One must admit that it is an image which is very faithful to the current reality, but it was sketched 49 years ago. Baran announced the failure of traditional marketing. He quoted data showing that in 1964 expenditures on distribution (keeping networks of shops and logistics) were nearly at the same level as production costs. It will end – he announced – as computer network will make it possible to buy cheaper, directly from a producer. He described the expenditures in the year 2000 in the following way: Imagine a user in front of the screen resembling the TV screen. He gets connected with ‘a powerful network of transforming information’ by using a few buttons. He chooses options: ‘I want to buy something’, then ‘tools’, later ‘saws for wood’. There appear saws of various producers, with their prices and reviews. Now he can be shown a commercial of other products in which somebody who is buying a saw is interested. In conclusion, Baran predicted that in the year 2000 a lot of transactions would be contracted by people who do not really meet with a sales assistant and will not see a product which they are ordering. He also predicted that companies would be able to limit costs of delegation by organizing a videoconference – a computer network will allow them to see one another on screens. In 1967 those were visions, which were unacceptable and even revolutionary. Marketing specialists considered them as impossible to implement. However, life proved who was right.

A modest man

Paul Baran did not earn millions on his inventions. He ran small but prosperous companies dealing with computer networks. Nevertheless he received a few prestigious awards. In 2007 he received ‘National Medal of Technology and Innovation’ handed by president George W. Bush. In the same year he was included into ‘National Inventors Hall of Fame’ in Akron in Ohio. Here it must be mentioned that the first laureate in this sphere was Thomas A. Edison. In an interview given on this occasion to a journalist of the Associated Press, Paul Baran said among the others: ‘I think that much more attention is paid to the issues of sport and entertainment more than to people who come out with their new ideas’. Among commercial ventures of Paul Baran there were, among the others, technologies allowing for making modems DSL or a network of cash machines. He also elaborated a detector for metals, which is used at airports. About 35 patents are registered at his surname. The most famous company of Paul Baran is Metricom – an operator of the first widely-accessible wireless network in the USA. His merit is accelerating the innovation in terms of work of computer printers, remote reading of electricity meters or interactive television.

Paul Baran died from lung cancer on 26 March 2011 in Palo Alto in California. His wife Evelyn died in June 2007, whereas their son Dawid, his wife Jane and three children live in Atherton in California. Baran’s death was commented by American media in this way: A man who invented internet died! During his life, he protested against such definitions – he pointed that making the basis of Internet was the work of big teams and nobody had a right to attribute authorship to oneself. Although he was a citizen of the USA, he used to emphasize his Polish origin, which is proven by prof. Targowski who participated in a ceremony of rewarding the inventor with Medal of American-Polish Association of Engineers in Detroit in 2003. In Autumn 2011 engineer Baran became the first scholar included in a newly created Pantheon of Polish Inventors and Explorers whose patrons are Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Mikołaj Kopernik.


„Niedziela” 38/2016

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: