Larry Roberts: He Made The Net Work

He persuaded scientists to share their computers
As part of its anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles of the greatest innovators of the past 75 years. Some made their mark in science or technology; others in management, finance, marketing, or government. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation.

Martin Luther KIng
A half-dozen individuals have been hailed as father of the Internet. Scores of others also had a hand in birthing this network. But the person who sifted through the contending technologies and drew up the blueprint for a networking infrastructure -- then actually made it work -- was Lawrence G. Roberts.

Roberts' baby was ARPAnet, the Internet's predecessor. But he never laid claim to the original idea. The Net's inspirational father was J.C.R. Licklider (1915-90), a psychologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who outlined his dream of a Galactic Network in the early 1960s. Then, during a stint at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA (now DARPA), "Lick" pretty much described today's Net.

At a fateful meeting with Lick in 1964, Roberts became a disciple. Still, when ARPA attempted to recruit him to oversee the network project, Roberts held back, worried that the administrative duties would be boring. Finally, in December, 1966, at age 29, he acquiesced. The next year, Roberts outlined his networking scheme at conferences and meetings with researchers. Scientists often resisted his call to share their computers, which were rare and expensive resources back then. But ARPA held the purse strings for much of their funding, so Roberts was hard to resist.

ARPAnet's key building blocks came from such researchers as Leonard Kleinrock and Paul Baran in the U.S. and Donald W. Davies in Britain. Each devised an approach to "packet switching," which solves bandwidth constraints by slicing transmissions into small packets and shooting them over the same wires. To develop a network-control protocol that would impose some order on packet switching's intentional chaos, Roberts relied on Vinton G. Cerf and Robert E. Kahn. In the late 1970s they refined this into TCP/IP, or Transmission-Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, the technology still in use today.

The call to build ARPAnet's first hardware went out in 1968. It triggered a flood of proposals that stacked up almost seven feet high and taxed even Roberts' speed-reading skills -- 2,400 words per minute. Roberts selected Bolt, Beranek & Newman (BBN) to build the first network switches. The initial units went to Kleinrock at the University of California at Los Angeles and Douglas C. Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute in 1969. BBN got the first East Coast "node" in 1970. After BBN's Ray Tomlinson wrote an e-mail program in 1971, scientists began flocking to the Net.

Roberts left ARPA in 1973 to found Telenet Communications Corp. as a BBN subsidiary (now part of Sprint Corp. (FON )). It was the first commercial packet-switched network. Today, Roberts continues to dream of bigger, better, faster networks. In 1999 he founded Caspian Networks Inc. to develop switches for multimedia traffic such as movies and radio broadcasts. Movies weren't even a glint in Roberts' eye in 1967, but he emerged as the star of the Internet drama.

By Otis Port

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.