During the presidential debate last night, Barack Obama made a slip reminiscent of Al Gore’s infamous gaffe from 1999 about how during his years in Congress he “took the initiative creating the Internet.” And as with the Gore, clearly Obama meant something else from the precise words that came out of his mouth.
In making a point about the his ideas to use government money to invest in energy research he sought to find an analogy in how government research played a role in the invention of the computer. Research and development work on alternative energy, he argued could “be the engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades. …The same way the computer was originally invented by a bunch of government scientists who were trying to figure out for defense purposes, how to communicate, we’ve got to understand that this is a national security issue as well.” (You can read the transcript and see the related video from The New York Times here by advancing the video to 41:46.
Clearly Obama meant the Internet, not computer, though the point is debatable. Modern computing traces its heritage to the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947, which occurred without any government funding. Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce are credited with the invention of the integrated circuit, what we now call a chip. These too were privately funded research projects.
What we could consider computers in any modern sense, were invented in the private sector, though governments and government-funded research projects have always been important customers creating the demand for supercomputers, mainframes, minicomputers, and later personal computers.
Earlier computers, like the ENIAC, were linked to military and government funded research programs, especially during World War II, but they ran on vacuum tubes. And yes, the ARPANet and the NSFNet, both forerunners of the modern Internet were created at the behest of government research programs. ARPANet came out of the Department of Defense. NSFNet came out of the National Science Foundation. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, which is itself funded the governments of member states.
What bothered me about Gore’s contention in 1999, was not the claim itself, which was arguable, but that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him to clarify what he meant by “creating the Internet.” I wonder if Obama is going to get the same kind of ribbing for crediting “government scientists” with the invention of the computer. At least he didn’t claim that he invented it.