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Paul Baran; helped create Internet's precursor

President Bush presented Paul Baran with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation. President Bush presented Paul Baran with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press/File 2008)
By Katie Hafner
New York Times / March 29, 2011

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NEW YORK — Paul Baran, an engineer who helped create the technical underpinnings for the Arpanet, the government-sponsored precursor to today’s Internet, died Saturday night at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 84.

The cause was complications of lung cancer, said his son, David.

In the early 1960s, while working at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Baran outlined the fundamentals for packaging data into discrete bundles, which he called “message blocks.’’ The bundles are then sent on various paths around a network and reassembled at their destination. Such a plan is known as packet switching.

Mr. Baran’s idea was to build a distributed communications network, less vulnerable to attack or disruption than conventional networks. In a series of technical papers published in the 1960s, he suggested that networks be designed with redundant routes so that if a particular path failed or was destroyed, messages could still be delivered through another.

Mr. Baran’s invention was so far ahead of its time that in the mid-1960s, when he approached AT&T with the idea to build his proposed network, the company insisted it would not work and refused.

“Paul wasn’t afraid to go in directions counter to what everyone else thought was the right or only thing to do,’’ said Vinton Cerf, a vice president at Google who was a colleague and longtime friend of Mr. Baran. “AT&T repeatedly said his idea wouldn’t work and wouldn’t participate in the Arpanet project,’’ he said.

In 1969, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency built a network that used Mr. Baran’s ideas and those of others. The Arpanet was eventually replaced by the Internet, and packet switching still lies at the heart of the network’s internal workings.

Paul Baran was born Grodno, Poland. His parents moved to the United States in 1928, and Mr. Baran grew up in Philadelphia. His father was a grocer, and as a boy, Paul delivered orders to customers in a small red wagon.

He attended Drexel Institute of Technology, which later became Drexel University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1949. He took his first job at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. in Philadelphia, testing parts of radio tubes for an early commercial computer, the UNIVAC.

In 1955, he married Evelyn Murphy, and they moved to Los Angeles, where Mr. Baran took a job at Hughes Aircraft, working on radar data processing systems. He enrolled in night classes at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Baran received a master’s degree in engineering from UCLA in 1959. Gerald Estrin, who was his adviser, said Mr. Baran was the first student he ever had who actually went to the Patent Office in Washington to investigate whether his master’s work, on character recognition, was patentable.

In 1959, Mr. Baran left Hughes to join RAND’s computer science department. He quickly developed an interest in the survivability of communications systems in the event of nuclear attack and spent the next several years at RAND working on a series of 13 papers, two of them classified, under contract to the Air Force, titled, “On Distributed Communications.’’

About the same time that Mr. Baran had his idea, similar plans for creating such networks were percolating in the computing community. Donald Davies of the British National Physical Laboratory, working a continent away, had a similar idea for dividing digital messages into chunks he called packets.

“In the golden era of the early 1960s, these ideas were in the air,’’ said Leonard Kleinrock, a computer scientist at UCLA who was working on similar networking systems in the 1960s.

Mr. Baran left RAND in 1968 to cofound the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group specializing in long-range forecasting.

Mr. Baran was also an entrepreneur. He started seven companies, five of which eventually went public.

In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence, and Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.

Mr. Baran’s wife, Evelyn, died in 2007. In addition to his son, David of Atherton, Calif., he leaves three grandchildren and his companion of recent years, Ruth Rothman.