Paul Baran’s successes have been well documented, both prior to and since his recent passing. After reading many of the tributes and technical accomplishments, what struck me most was the societal impact of his body of work over time which I think, is a more important measure of one’s true success.
The number of people that have been directly impacted by his work is extraordinary. By my account about 1.5 billion people or every man, woman and child that has ever used the Internet.
Paul Baran is the man who connected the connected world, or at minimum made it possible. We take for granted that at home, work or while travelling we can connect to the people and resources that are important to us and this is largely attributable to Paul’s life work.
Just as we do not think of Thomas Edison every time we turn on a light we most likely do not think of Paul Baran every time we send an email or connect to the “Cloud”.
We simply take for granted that when we click send that our email and its attachments magically crisscross the globe and arrive at the intended destination. We are oblivious to the fact that one simple email and its attachments may be broken up into many small pieces, travel different paths, encounter transmission errors, recover and quite miraculously, reassemble at the point of delivery.
Most of us probably don’t know or wouldn’t care that the network that transports those treasured pictures of our children and grandchildren was designed by Paul to withstand a nuclear attack. Or, that the resilience of a packet switched network that uses link-state routing protocols is something we enjoy today in large part from the research done by him to develop a network that could survive a thermo-nuclear explosion.
If you were alive in the early 1960’s, the threat of nuclear attack was more real and present than to any other generation in history. The Cuban missile crisis had the world on edge and every world power was building up their nuclear arsenal manned by soldiers with trembling fingers resting on hair-triggers.
It’s hard to imagine thinking beyond the death and destruction of a thermo-nuclear explosion but I suppose that other concerns must be addressed as well. Little things like “how do we maintain a command and control system in the aftermath?” While we may not have fully understood the effects of a nuclear explosion at the time we knew one thing for certain, nuclear bombs wreak havoc on communications networks.
As a researcher at RAND, Paul was thinking beyond and had an idea; design a “survivable” packet-switched network utilizing a “redundant” digital architecture. Again, we take for granted that packet-switching is a foundational design element of the TCP/IP protocol used on the Internet today.
At the time however, this was a revolutionary idea that as you would expect, was met with many “eye rolls and snickers” from the traditional analog engineers of the time. Mr. Baran said in retrospect “the Net's biggest threat wasn't the USSR - it was the phone company.” Thankfully, he persisted and we still reap the benefits of his determination today.
Paul’s work in subsequent years provided the world with packet voice technology which led to the first commercial ATM product. His contributions also provided orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing that is used in DSL modems. He founded the first wireless Internet company that developed the first public wireless mesh networking system. He also founded a company that envisioned personalized television and provided IPTV equipment to television operators.
These are just a few of his many technical and business achievements and if that were not enough for one person, he also invented the metal detectors that are used in airports worldwide to help keep us and our families safe when we travel.
Paul left a lasting legacy that will benefit generations to come. We owe a debt of gratitude to him for not only his technical contributions but for how his life’s body of work has benefitted society.
As CEO and President of RAND Jim Thomson noted "Our world is a better place for the technologies Paul Baran has invented and developed, and also because of his consistent concern with appropriate public policies for their use."
One of the fathers of the internet, Vinton Cerf, stated that "Paul wasn't afraid to go in directions counter to what everyone else thought was the right or only thing to do."
According to Paul Saffo, Baran also believed that innovation was a "team process" and he didn't seek credit for himself.
On hearing news of his death, Robert Kahn, co-inventor of the Internet, said: "Paul was one of the finest gentlemen I ever met and creative to the very end."
Not bad for a Polish immigrant with humble beginnings. We can each only hope that we will be remembered in those ways. What more can be said about a man that made such extraordinary contributions to society and is such a significant part of our history. Please take a moment to think about Paul Baran and his contributions and give thanks.
He was predeceased, in 2007, by Evelyn, his wife since 1955. He is survived by his companion, Ruth Rothman, his son, David, and three grandchildren.
Paul Baran, significant societal contributor, husband, father, grandfather, pioneer, scientist, and engineer, born April 29, 1926; died March 26, 2011
This remembrance emphasizes the importance of the work being done by the IT History Society in preserving a record of Paul Baran and those like him that have left us better for having been on this planet.
Please do your part to support the Society’s work in preserving our history through the generous contribution of your time, knowledge and money. To quote Mr. Baran in a 2001 interview with Stewart Brand, “I think we're underinvesting in recording history.”
Paul Baran: A Brief Bio
BS Electrical Engineering, Drexel University 1949
MS Computer Engineering, University of California at Los Angeles 1959
GoBackTV Co-Founder 2003
Com21 Modem Founder 1995
InterFax Founder 1989
Metricom Founder 1986
Cabledata Associates Founder 1972
Institute for the Future Co-Founder 1968-72
RAND Corporation Computer Engineer 1959-68
Hughes Aircraft Engineer 1952-59
Unisys Technician, Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. 1949-52
Awards & Memberships
IEEE Edwin H. Armstrong Award 1987
IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal 1990
Marconi Prize 1991
EFF Pioneer Award 1993
Nippon Electronics Corporation C&C Prize 1996
Franklin Institute's Henry Bower Award 2001
Computer History Museum Hall of Fellows 2005
George R. Stibitz Computer & Communications Pioneer Award 2005
National Inventors Hall of Fame 2007
National Medal of Technology & Innovation 2007
UCLA Engineering Alumnus of the Year 2009
American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow
Association for Computing Machinery
Charles Babbage Foundation Trustee
IEEE Life Fellow
IT History Society
National Research Council
SPIE (The International Society for Optics & Photonics)
World Technology Network