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Internet Pioneer Paul Baran, W3KAS (SK)


Paul Baran, W3KAS -- an engineer who helped create the technical underpinnings for the ARPANET, the government-sponsored precursor to today’s Internet -- died March 27 at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 84. According to his son David, the cause of death was related to complications from lung cancer. Baran was one of the three inventors of packet-switched networks, along with Donald Davies and Leonard Kleinrock.

Baran attended the Drexel Institute of Technology (later known as Drexel University), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1949. He took his first job at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, testing parts of radio tubes for an early commercial computer, the UNIVAC. In 1955, Baran moved to Los Angeles, where he took a job at Hughes Aircraft to work on radar data processing systems. He enrolled in night classes at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received a master’s degree in engineering in 1959.

In 1959, Baran left Hughes to join RAND’s computer science department. He quickly developed an interest in the survivability of communications systems in the event of a nuclear attack. He spent the next several years at RAND under contract to the Air Force, working on a series of 13 papers -- two of them classified -- titled On Distributed Communications.

In the early 1960s, while working at RAND, Baran was working on a “survivable” communications system when he thought up one of its core concepts: Breaking up a single message into smaller pieces, having them travel different, unpredictable paths to their destination and only then putting them back together. It’s called packet switching and it’s how everything still gets to your e-mail inbox.

Baran’s idea was to build a distributed communications network that was less vulnerable to attacks or disruptions than conventional networks. In a series of technical papers published in the 1960s, he suggested that networks be designed with redundant routes, so that if a particular path failed or was destroyed, messages could still be delivered through another. The system would be better able to withstand an attack because it lacked a central hub through which all data or messages passed.

In 1968, the technology was adopted by MIT and the DARPA -- the Department of Defense’s research agency -- to create what became the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, the world’s first operational packet switching network and a forerunner to today's Internet; packet switching still lies at the heart of the network’s internal workings. In 1983, following the success of ARPANET trials, the military section of the network was split off into a separate entity known as MILNET, while the remaining ARPANET was eventually renamed the Internet in 1989.

In 1990, Baran was awarded the IEEE’s Alexander Graham Bell Medal. This award honors exceptional contributions to the advancement of communications sciences and engineering in the field of telecommunications. It is the highest honor awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers for achievements in telecommunication sciences and engineering.

In 2002, Baran was inducted into the CQ Hall of Fame for inventing packet switching, and for the development of the first telemetry equipment for NASA.

In 2007, Baran was recognized for his achievements by President George W. Bush, who presented Baran with the National Medal of Technology (now known as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation) “[f]or the invention and development of the fundamental architecture for packet switched communication networks which provided a paradigm shift from the circuit switched communication networks of the past and later was used to build the ARPANET and the Internet.” This medal is awarded to American inventors and innovators who have made significant contributions to the development of new and important technology. It is the highest honor the United States can confer to a US citizen for achievements related to technological progress.

“Our world is a better place for the technologies Paul Baran invented and developed, and also because of his consistent concern with appropriate public policies for their use,” said James Thomson, President and Chief Executive of RAND.  -- Thanks to the New York Times and Wired Magazine for the information



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