Paul Baran RIP

Paul Baran, the engineer who first thought of packet-switching (Donald Davies independently came up with the same idea later) has died at the age of 84.

Baran was one of the most entertaining and intriguing figures I came across when I was researching my history of the Internet way back in the 1990s. The story of how he came up with the idea — and of his hilarious experiences with AT&T — is told in Chapter 6. Essentially, AT&T’s position was: “this packet-switching stuff couldn’t work, but even if it did we wouldn’t allow it”. After he’d submitted his proposal for a packet-switched network to the Pentagon, Baran realised that the contract to build the pilot network would go to an agency staffed mainly by ex-AT&T engineers, concluded that they would make sure that it didn’t work and — rather than have them strangle his baby at birth — withdrew the proposal. It’s the kind of story that one couldn’t make up. And yet it happened.