Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, radio-transmitted beeps from the first man-made object to orbit the Earth stunned and frightened the US, and the country's reaction to the "October surprise" changed computing forever.

Ed Lazowska, a computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, offers this story from the 1970s and early 1980s, when Kahn was a DARPA program manager, then director of its Information Processing Techniques Office:

What Kahn did was absolutely remarkable. He supported the DARPA VLSI program, which funded the [Carver] Mead-[Lynn] Conway integrated circuit design methodology. Then he funded the SUN workstation at Stanford because Forest Baskett needed a high-

resolution, bitmapped workstation for doing VLSI design, and his grad student, Andy Bechtolsheim, had an idea for a new frame buffer.

Meanwhile, Kahn funded Berkeley to do Berkeley Unix. He wanted to turn Unix into a common platform for all his researchers so they could share results more easily, and he also saw it as a Trojan horse to drive the adoption of TCP/IP. That was at a time when every company had its own networking protocol -- IBM with SNA, DEC with DECnet, the Europeans with X.25 -- all brain-dead protocols.

One thing Kahn required in Berkeley Unix was that it have a great implementation of TCP/IP. So he went to Baskett and Bechtolsheim and said, "By the way, boys, you need to run Berkeley Unix on this thing." Meanwhile, Jim Clark was a faculty member at Stanford, and he looked at what Baskett was doing with the VLSI program and realized he could take the entire rack of chips that were Baskett's graphics processor and reduce them to a single board. That's where Silicon Graphics came from.

All this stuff happened because one brilliant guy, Bob Kahn, cherry-picked a bunch of phenomenal researchers -- Clark, Baskett, Mead, Conway, Bill Joy -- and headed them off in complimentary directions and cross-fertilized their work. It's just utterly remarkable.

Surprise?

The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik shocked the world and became known as the "October surprise." But was it really?

Paul Green was working at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in 1957 as a communications researcher. He had learned Russian and was invited to give talks to the Popov Society, a group of Soviet technology professionals. "So I knew Russian scientists," Green recalls. "In particular, I knew this big-shot academician named Vladimir Kotelnikov."

In the summer of 1957, Green told Computerworld, a coterie of Soviet scientists, including Kotelnikov, attended a meeting of the International Scientific Radio Union in Boulder, Colo. Says Green, "At the meeting, Kotelnikov -- who, it turned out later, was involved with Sputnik -- just mentioned casually, 'Yeah, we are about to launch a satellite.'"

"It didn't register much because the Russians were given to braggadocio. And we didn't realize what that might mean -- that if you could launch a satellite in those days, you must have a giant missile and all kinds of capabilities that were scary. It sort of went in one ear and out the other."

And did he tell anyone in Washington? "None of us even mentioned it in our trip reports," he says.

DARPA today

But around 2000, Kleinrock and other top-shelf technology researchers say, the agency, now called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), began to focus more on pragmatic, military objectives. A new administration was in power in Washington, and then 9/11 changed priorities everywhere. Observers say DARPA shifted much of its funding from long-range to shorter-term research, from universities to military contractors, and from unclassified work to secret programs.

Of government funding for IT, Kleinrock says, "our researchers are now being channeled into small science, small and incremental goals, short-term focus and small funding levels." The result, critics say, is that DARPA is much less likely today to spawn the kinds of revolutionary advances in IT that came from Licklider and his successors.

DARPA officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But Jan Walker, a spokesperson for DARPA Director Anthony Tether, said, "Dr. Tether ... does not agree. DARPA has not pulled back from long-term, high-risk, high-payoff research in IT or turned more to short-term projects."

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Gary Anthes

Computerworld
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