The Origins and Future of Open Source Software

How Government Support Launched the Modern Computing Age[1]

One of the earliest threads that led to the Internet and the whole landscape of post-World War II government support for computing began with an Atlantic Monthly article right after the war by Vannevar Bush, a prominent MIT researcher. In that article, he laid out a vision of collaborative science and computing that would spark both economic and technological prominence for America.

Under the psychological impact of Russia's Sputnik success in the 1950s, Vannevar Bush's vision began to take shape as the government sought to regularize its technological research and spending. Given the political biases in the U.S. against government intervention, it seemed inevitable that the engine for industrial policy would be defense-related--even highway and education spending in the period was defined as "defense" to achieve legislative passage.

However, President Eisenhower's personal experience in the military made him distrustful of the bureaucratic interests in the Pentagon, which led him to support the creation of new institutions largely independent of specific military branches. One example was NASA, which ended up with much of the day-to-day applied research of the military, while a new agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created to help coordinate overall R&D spending. Early in the decade, the National Science Foundation was created as a separate agency to fund non- military research, although it would develop a close relationship with the science-based military agencies.

A key appointment at ARPA came in 1962 when psychologist J.C.R. Licklider was hired to head a behavior sciences office, an office that would evolve under Licklider's two-year directorship into the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) which would direct the original creation of the Internet. Licklider in 1960 has written a manifesto for using computers to enhance research and research collaboration called "Man-Computer Symbiosis" and would define the IPTO's office's mandate in research funding. As importantly, Licklider's university background encouraged him and his successors to extend ARPA's funding to a range of university projects.

One key project was a $3 million per year grant to Project MAC at MIT to encourage the spread of time-sharing computing on the then-breakthrough minicomputer technology. ARPA would fund six of the first twelve time-sharing computer systems in the country, which in turn would help spark the whole minicomputer industry in the 1960s--crucial in the industry and the Boston-area regional economy then but as crucial to the development of the Internet over the next decades. Out of Project MAC would largely develop the early ethos of software and hardware innovation--"hacking" in its early non-pejorative sense before it became confused with electronic vandalism--that launched the computer revolution. It was MIT hackers at Project MAC who largely designed both hardware and software for DEC's breakthrough PDP-6 timesharing minicomputer. They would spend endless hours creating and sharing new software to extend its capabilities beyond the expectations of its creators.

One of the most radical innovations was the SKETCHPAD program by Ivan Sutherland which allowed the first graphic manipulation of computer images, thereby allowing users to resize and manipulate pictures on the computer screen. Ivan Sutherland would go on to run ARPA and would hire a NASA engineer named Bob Taylor to run the IPTO office after Licklider. Both would use their positions to further promote the creation of breakthrough computing and encourage collaboration across the country.

A key part of this was funding for the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute. ARC was run by an researcher Doug Engelbart whose ideas on use of the computer as an aid to individual creativity largely paralleled Licklider's. Taylor pushed through a multi million-dollar grant for computers and staff for ARC's proposed "augmentation laboratory." Out of ARC's lab would come an array of researchers who would go on to become leaders of their own research teams at universities and commercial R&D divisions across the country.

Engelbart worked from Sutherland's precedent to concentrate on using the computer to manipulate text and ideas on the screen. Working with seventeen colleagues and going through three rapid cycles of hardware revolution, by 1968 he was ready to publicly demonstrate the results at an engineering conference called the ACM/IEEE Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. And the results stunned the audience.

Hooked up by microwave communication to the computers back at SRI, Engelbart would demonstrate the array of tools developed at ARC: the first "mouse" used as an input device, a windowing environment that could rapidly switch between a menu of information sources and models of information, and word processing on screen. None of these had ever been seen before and, in an age when most programmers were still interacting with computers through punch cards, the idea of word processing was a revelation[2]. What was demonstrated was only the showiest example of a set of tools developed to facilitate communication and shared information-based work among intellectual collaborators. ARC was already using text-editing to share common data through hypertext storage (the method of linked pages later used in the World Wide Web) and ran an electronic mail communication system with dedicated e-mail distribution lists among the researchers--all of this years before these innovations would come to the ARPAnet. ARC would also pioneer video-conferencing years before it was developed commercially.

What is startling about Engelbart's achievement, often ignored due to the institutional liquidation of ARC, is how many of the conceptual computing breakthroughs and initial implementations were achieved by his team. To name just a few critical to the networked economy:

All of this was paid for by the federal government due to the vision of Licklider, Sutherland and Bob Taylor at ARPA. As importantly for Silicon Valley, this federal investment would contribute to making the region a magnet for new visionary talent and a wellspring of the networked economy.

Next: How Free, Open Source Software Created the Internet