10 brilliant DARPA inventions

16 Mar 2012

Davey Winder counts down ten amazing innovations that were born at - or inspired by - the legendary US defence agency

Established in 1958 in response to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, the mission of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has always been the same: to maintain the technological superiority of the US military.

Why are we devoting magazine pages to a military organisation? Because DARPA is one of the most important technology research and development organisations on the planet.

DARPA is one of the most important technology research and development organisations on the planet

In the past 50 years, it has had a major impact on the technological culture we now take for granted.

With the US Department of Defense increasing its research budget from $120 million (£74.6 million) to $188 million (£117 million) for 2012, and a total budget of more than $3 billion (£1.9 billion), we can expect to see plenty more sci-fi-like innovations from DARPA.

In its own words, “DARPA undertakes projects that are finite in duration but that create lasting revolutionary change” – and for once the political spin doctors are right, as our top ten list of brilliant DARPA innovations proves.

1. The internet

Although there are many individuals to whom the development of the net can be attributed, without DARPA it simply wouldn’t exist.

In August 1962, JCR Licklider’s paper entitled “On-Line Man Computer Communication” described a connected global network, and by October he’d been appointed director of the new Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at ARPA, as it was called back then. His brief was to create a network to connect Department of Defense computers at three disparate locations.

It wasn’t until another internet pioneer, Robert Taylor, took over as the head of IPTO and brought in Larry Roberts from MIT that work on building the network began.

The first host-to-host connection between PCs on the new Arpanet was established at 10.30pm on 29 October 1969, creating the world’s first fully operational packet-switching network. By December, a four-node network was up and running, the first email was sent across it in 1972, and people started referring to it as the internet in 1973.

2. Windows, the World Wide Web and videoconferencing

You may think we’ve lost the plot now, since we all know Microsoft invented Windows (or should that be Apple?) and Tim Berners-Lee was the genius behind the web – but DARPA had a hand in both, courtesy of NLS.

The oN-Line System was the brainchild of PC mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart, who in 1961 proposed to the director of information sciences of the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research to “develop a comprehensive framework for augmenting human intellect”.

NLS developments also included the first practical use of hypertext linking, which proved the concept could work in the real world

Engelbart’s work on NLS, later known as the Augment System, included the first use of onscreen windowing with a mouse – without which there couldn’t have been any GUI or Microsoft Windows. NLS developments also included the first practical use of hypertext linking, which proved the concept could work in the real world, and without which the World Wide Web wouldn’t have been invented either.

When Engelbart demonstrated NLS to the public in 1969, he combined leased telephone lines, a PC and a 22ft-high screen with video inserts courtesy of a projector, to allow his team back at the labs to join in the demo. In effect, this was the birth of online videoconferencing. Who funded this research? DARPA, along with the US Air Force and NASA.

3. Google Maps

DARPA beat Google to the Street View thing, complete with cameras on car roofs, by almost 30 years. In the summer of 1979, a group of MIT Architecture Machine Group students funded by DARPA demonstrated the Aspen Movie Map on videodisc.

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