Abstract: The Entrepreneurs Take Command: Commercial Foundations of Computer Networking, 1968-1988

Andrew L. Russell


Conventional interpretations of the Internet’s history celebrate DARPA’s nourishing of the Arpanet and the subsequent commercialization of the Internet and the World Wide Web.  One shortcoming of these interpretations is that they celebrate government innovations and interventions but tend to omit the vast ecosystem of companies that manufactured networking hardware—equipment such as modems, bridges, and routers. 

The purpose of this paper is to reinterpret Internet history as networking history, and to highlight the development of market structures for computer communications equipment.  The paper makes two major points.  First, in contrast to the existing literature’s focus on the development of the TCP/IP Internet protocols under DARPA’s sponsorship, I focus on the great diversity of networking equipment developed in the private sector, with no relationship to DARPA’s work.  Most buyers and manufacturers of network equipment did not see the TCP/IP Internet protocols as a viable long-term option until the late 1980s and early 1990s.  By omitting the diversity and failures in networking and internetworking markets in the 1970s and 1980s, the existing literature does not accurately portray the development of the broader market structure.  Second, existing studies of the Arpanet and Internet miss the growth and significance of corporate networks, such as the feedback from users of corporate networks that shaped the pace and direction of networking products.  These users generated urgent market demand for the networking technologies that managers would use to streamline office and factory operations, and to lower transaction costs across networks of suppliers and customers.  DARPA provided a military-funded push for a particular type of packet-switched computer networking; my paper is about market pull for networking, and the opportunities that entrepreneurs created and exploited to meet market demand

With these two points established, the paper concludes with a reinterpretation of networking history, one that recasts DARPA not as the hero but rather as a villain, a force that distorted and undermined market structures that had emerged to create and sustain alternative internetworking technologies that had stronger technical and political-economic foundations compared to the TCP/IP Internet.