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10 brilliant DARPA inventions

Posted on 16 Mar 2012 at 16:50

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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User comments


If only some mention was made about the highly questionable aims of this organisation to basically find better and more efficient ways of killing millions of people. Progress at one hell of a cost . But hey lets just skip over that part and enjoy the technology....

By andycollinson1 on 16 Mar 2012

Very dubious indeed

The idea that DAPRA is tasked to "...basically find better and more efficient ways of killing millions of people" is the dubious assertion here. Ludicrous in fact.

Western military powers have, for many decades now, been primarily designed to defend their own countries from attack, not to 'kill millions' of people. Nuclear weapons have existed for decades and there are few more effective method of 'killing millions' than those.

But hey, let's just skip over that fact and enjoy airing our personal prejudices - while studiously ignoring all the good, (world changing good) that has come from the tiny percentage of GDP that we and our allies spend on military R&D.

Hell, we should probably disband our armies altogether - the world being such a friendly place. Why, I do believe Argentina would be the first country to send us a bunch of flowers in gratitude. I don't suppose for one second they would immediately ethnically cleanse the Falkland Islands of their native population and seize all assets...

By Mr_John_T on 16 Mar 2012

Good article

Anyway, I thought it was an excellent article - I always enjoy it when PC Pro does stuff like this.

By Mr_John_T on 16 Mar 2012

All but Impressive


I like these kind of articles too.

Like you, I think that technology can be elegant and beautiful, also context is everything. None the less I think the article should have been more forthright on the appalling destruction warfare can cause. I think "impressive" when talking about bombing is unfortunate.

Please could you provide the reference for the 80% hit rate.

For example if I send out planes to carpet bomb Slough I could decide that "precision bombing" is defined as 5% of bombs hitting the target. Then, if 80% of bombs hit 5% of the target I could report an 80% "hit rate".

If you could provide the reference for the figures we could check to see how the figure is calculated.

A recent Guardian article (can't find the link alas) noted that while the number of people killed in warfare has increased the percentage of people killed who participate in battles has actually decreased.

Put another way when we were using clubs to kill each other there was a good chance that both combatants could end up fatally wounded. Technology can reduce the number of fatalities but the difference between a club and a nuclear weapon is also that one is more "personal" than the other.

One of the problems with technology is that it can separate us from the brutality of war. In this sense the more "efficient" research become the greater the danger of separation.

I know the article was about technology but being such a subject I think it would have been fitting to pose a question such as "if a drone plane accidentally bombs and causes death and destruction who is responsible? The manufacturer? the programmer? The person sending the drone out?"

Really liked the article and look forward to reading more like it in the future.

By simontompkins on 17 Mar 2012

F-117 a plan that could not fly when raining

I like..."F-117, which was used to impressive effect during the Desert Storm operation - one big problem it losses all stealth when it rains - ok in the Gulf no good in Europe that's how one got shot down and another damaged, during a missions against the Army of Yugoslavia 1999


By mprltd on 17 Mar 2012

"Western military powers have, for many decades now, been primarily designed to defend their own countries from attack, not to 'kill millions' of people. Nuclear weapons have existed for decades and there are few more effective method of 'killing millions' than those."

It's funny how they have done just that over the past few decades, as in kill millions of people...3 million in Vietnam, million or so in Iraq to name just 2 of the appalling war crimes committed by The USA and its "allies"...but hey we got some good tech (and yes it IS good tech when it has civilian, humane uses).

A forum on PCPro is prob not the place to get into all this, but it isn't a personal prejudice it's opening your eyes.. smelling the coffee... If keeping your head in the sand about the "good" , "we" are doing by killing all around the world year after year to spread "freedom and democracy" and the lie that this protects us here, helps you sleep at night then fair enough....

By andycollinson1 on 17 Mar 2012

So Andy, if the USA, its 'allies' as you put it (often UN-backed 'allies') go in to a brutal dictatorship to try to stop mass slaughter that makes them inherently bad does it?

What about the mass slaughter, genocide and ethnic cleansing that the USA and its 'allies' are trying to stop in the first place?

You have no problem sleeping with all that going on while not lifting a finger to even try and help? I think I'm not the only one who needs to open their eyes.

As for the argument about it always being about oil, strangely enough, the oil always flows when the dictators are in charge too, so not really a coherent argument there.

Of course atrocities happen in war, on both sides, but if you think leaving brutal regimes and dictators to simply do what they want to their own subjugated populations unimpeded is a better solution, I find that quite sad.

Still, you were born in a nice, safe democracy where you have freedoms, rights and protections, so you can freely stand on the side and sneer at the idea of trying to give those same things to other people. Good for you and your moral superiority.

By Mr_John_T on 17 Mar 2012

simontompkins, I think you came up with a really interesting point regarding the drones - I think it's one that will become more and more pertinent as time goes on.

I think ultimately the person (nation) who sends it out will obviously take the blame, but whose actual 'fault' it is from the people you list, that's certainly going to be a difficult one to pin down...

By Mr_John_T on 17 Mar 2012

John, ok, I'm gonna say it... how naive are you? I never mentioned oil, but the fact that it flows while the dictators are in charge means what exactly? There are plenty of dictatorships around with oil flowing that do the bidding of the USA and so we don't mind what they do to their populations...Saudi Arabia? Bahrain? Iraq before Saddam got a bit too unruly? and on and on ... The fact of the matter is if you have bought into the spreading of "freedom and democracy" then you have bought into the "message". That's ok, it's easier to believe we are the good guys, fighting the good fight. I sometimes wish I didn't realise what lies we are continually sold.
Your faith in the well meaning aims of the powers that be is naive as I say. Wikileaks shed some much needed light on the hypocrisy of governments, along with lies about Iraqi WMD, and numerous other examples down the annuls of history. These wars have almost all been illegal under international law, since Nuremberg, you know, the one about pre-emptive aggression....
If you think it's better we strike first and subjugate the world with military might to maintain the vice like power over the world as allies we have then just admit it, but please don't buy into the BS about spreading goodness around the place, it's a blatant fallacy if you look a little further than the good old BBC and co. No conspiracy theories needed, just decades, heck, centuries, of the powers that be riding roughshod over the world while claiming otherwise.... Yes I was born into a free country, but those freedoms I was born with are being eroded wholesale on the back of the "war on terror".
Bombard people with kindness, hospitals, education and the like,rather than missiles, bombs and drones and who knows how much things could change for the better. Instead we spend trillions on killing countless millions whose relatives really don't like us very much for some strange reason! It's all power games with the majority of us being the pawns to be disposed of in any way seen fit. Maybe I'm naive to think that there might be another way, but at least I can admit it to myself and not agree with wholesale slaughter under the guise of some supposed freedom and democracy crusade...wherever it may be....Good luck to you :)

By andycollinson1 on 17 Mar 2012

John Pilger

Check him out, cuts through the BS with an honest knife... But staying head in sand is a more comfortable place believe me :)

By andycollinson1 on 17 Mar 2012

There's nothing 'naive' about believing that not EVERYTHING the Western world does is always down to a hidden, ulterior motive. Of course in some situations there are are numerous factors at play about why we do some things in some situations and refuse to act in others, but it's not ALWAYS about naked self-interest.

Where was the self interest in stopping the genocide in Kosovo? Or Libya? What oil have we dug up in Afghanistan to make it all so worthwhile?

I haven't bought into any 'message', I do know however that not everything is as black and white as some people like to make out.

Of course the West does things wrong. Many, many things on many, many occasions, few would deny that. I'm just sick of all the smug, self-satisfied sniping and conspiracies that say there's a hidden agenda behind every single thing we do.

When our governments try to act: they're wrong. When the don't act: they're wrong. And when they've spent years of inaction, then change their minds and try and intervene: they're still wrong. Sometimes they're in a no-win situation: Stand by and watch human rights abuses and genocide and be labelled callous, or intervene and be labelled imperialists.

It's very easy to sit on the sidelines and tell people the decisions they make are wrong, (often with the benefit of hindsight) it's a lot more difficult to actually have to make a decision and then stand by it.

As for the 'BS' of us spreading good around the place, if we were so bad I'd suggest that the Commonwealth wouldn't exist as all the member countries would hate us. It does exist because they don't all hate us, and they don't all hate us because we aren't all bad - even if that doesn't fit in with certain peoples ideology.

As for wanting to bombard people with kindness instead of missiles, you mean like the £12b+ each year we spend in foreign aid? Specifically for things like hospitals and education?

That sum is FAR more than we spend on our own military R&D, and if we didn't spend that money helping others I'd suggest we could afford our own version of DARPA.

As for 'comfortable', there's nothing remotely comfortable about watching the people you care about go out into the world and get killed trying to do right by people you've never even met. But of course, anyone who disagrees with your viewpoint can't have come to their conclusion in a studied and logical way, they must naturally be 'naive' for not agreeing with you.

By Mr_John_T on 17 Mar 2012

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