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Chapter 4 - Networking: Vision and Packet Switching 1959 - 1968

4.9 Bolt Beranek and Newman: The Winning Bid -1968

When ARPA released the RFQ in July 1968, BBN had assigned the responsibility of preparing its response to Frank Heart, the head of Division 6. Heart had extensive experience with computer communications including work on the SAGE system at Lincoln Labs. Heart also enjoyed personal relationships with many of the ARPA personnel, including Roberts. After the Michigan meeting in 1967, Clark had recommended Heart to Taylor as the one person who could connect the computers together without relying on a central computer to direct the traffic.

Heart recalls attaching no special importance to the project:

No one realized at this stage how big it was to be. After all, it was just to build a four-node network. We did not know it was going to start a revolution!

Heart’s core team was made up of former Lincoln Labs employees who had followed him to BBN: Severo Ornstein, who had once worked for Wesley Clark, had responsibility for the hardware design; Will Crowther was the principal software designer; and Dave Walden worked for Crowther.

Robert Kahn, another key contributor, was loaned to the team from BBN Division 4, the division responsible for time-sharing and computer research. A man of inexhaustible energy, Kahn served as a member of the technical staff of AT&T’s Bell Labs while a graduate student at Princeton University. After completing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1964, Kahn joined the faculty of MIT. In 1966 he left MIT to become a member of Division 4 at BBN where he reported to Jerry Elkind. Elkind encouraged Kahn to pursue networking projects and had already introduced Kahn and Roberts. Elkind believed designing a computer network was of national importance.

Heart remembers the importance of his team’s shared experiences building real-time computer systems at Lincoln Labs, including the influence of SAGE:

The whole SAGE system, of course, was built on computers communicating with each other and with radar sets. So that was a well-mined area in terms of the simple technology of using modems and connecting data sources to computers. At that time, very few people understood how to build real-time computer systems. That was one of the things that the people who worked at Lincoln had learned, that when you’re building radar systems, or the SAGE system, or systems to handle seismic data, or radio telescope data, performance was very critical.

Sharing included more than experience, it included the knowledge and systems to manage into being risky, existence-proof technical systems. Roberts, himself having thrived at Lincoln Labs, did not ignore the advantages of working with others so trained. He recalls:

Raytheon had a good proposal that competed equally with BBN, and the only distinguishing thing in the long run for my final decision was that BBN had a tighter team organized in a way that I thought would be more effective than a very steep commercial structure with lots of managers and vertically – so I didn’t believe they’d keep the schedules as well, but they had a good proposal.

The week before Christmas 1968, BBN learned it had won the ARPA contract. While pleased, the team knew the real work now began. There was one light moment: before receiving their formal notification, Senator Edward Kennedy telegramed BBN, congratulating them on having won the “Interfaith Message Processor Project.”25

  • [25]

    Vint Cerf: “They were actually congratulated on their ecumenical effort.”