Who Invented the Internet?

23 October 2008 at 5:09 pm 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

OK, we now know it wasn’t Al Gore. (And John McCain didn’t didn’t invent the BlackBerry either.) But who did invent the internet? Physicists have long maintained that they did. Michael Nielsen (via Josh Gans) disagrees:

It’s true that the principal inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, was a programmer working at CERN, the huge European particle accelerator. In 1988 he sketched out a way of hooking up hypertext ideas, developed by people like Ted Nelson and Bill Atkinson, to the internet, developed by people like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. He talked the idea up at CERN for a year, with no response. In 1989 he wrote up and circulated a formal proposal around CERN. Again, no response for a year. Finally, he coded up a prototype in his spare time. In this, he actually was helped by his manager, who said it was okay if he used one of CERN’s workstations to build the prototype. It was launched to the world about one year later.

Berners-Lee didn’t succeed because CERN was doing fundamental research. He succeeded in spite of it.

Nielsen goes on to make a more general claim about large organizations tending to stifle innovation, but that is a more complicated and difficult issue. Yesterday in my entrepreneurship class we discussed Zoltan Acs and David Audretsch’s 1990 book Innovation and Small Firms, which paints a more nuanced picture (e.g., the relationship between firm size, scope, complexity, etc. and innovation varies widely by industry, market structure, time, manufacturing technology, and the like). 

Here is my take on the history of the internet, and here is an academic paper on internal capital markets and innovation.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Innovation, Myths and Realities.

Heckman on Academia Dead Founders

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. spostrel  |  23 October 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Tom Peters wrote a great article called “The Mythology of Innovation: A Skunkworks Tale” in the Stanford alumni magazine back in 1993 or so. He used many examples to argue that bootleg, illegitimate projects created many, many important things. If memory serves, the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the workhorse of the Western inventory, was a project run sub rosa by people who believed in infra-red homing, even after it was ordered killed by the bosses.

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