Paul Baran, one of the inventors of the packet switching technology that underpins all internet traffic, has died aged 84.
Paul Baran, one of the inventors of the packet switching technology that underpins all internet traffic, has died aged 84. Photo credit: Rand
Baran passed away on Saturday at his home in Palo Alto, California, following complications related to lung cancer, according to an announcement by his former employer Rand on Monday.
Following work on the first American commercial computers, the Polish-born scientist came up with the idea of packet switching while working at Rand in 1963. He was tasked with devising a method that would allow data to be efficiently transmitted across a network in the event of a nuclear attack. Baran's design has no centralised switching facility, meaning that communications could still be passed even if part of the network was damaged.
By splitting up messages into individual packets, each containing their destination, and allowing the network to choose their routes on a case-by-case basis, his proposed system could provide reliable data transfer over unreliable links.
In 1968, the technology was adopted by MIT and the Darpa US defence research agency to create what became Arpanet, the world's first operational packet switching network and a forerunner to today's internet.
Baran remained humble about his achievements.
"When he visited Rand in the summer of 2009 and presented a seminar to the Alumni Association on his work that led to packet switching, he said a lot of people contributed in important ways to this discovery, that it wasn't his alone," said Natalie Crawford, a Rand senior fellow.
However, Baran's visionary ideas were not always warmly received by companies that failed to understand the implications of the technology he was proposing.
I think nobody really appreciated the importance of his work at the time. – Willis Ware
Willis Ware, a retired Rand researcher, was chairman of the computer science department at Rand during Baran's tenure and said what he most remembered about Baran was "his patience in dealing with people who didn't believe in his work — like AT&T [in the 1960s]".
"I think nobody really appreciated the importance of his work at the time," Ware added.
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.
"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.