Who Invented the Computer? DARPA

Who Invented the Computer? This is the twenty-ninth installment in our ongoing series.

Sputnik inspires Uncle Sam to invent cool stuff.

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, into an elliptical low-Earth orbit. The metallic ball remained aloft for three months, completing 1,440 orbits and, during the first three weeks of its journey, emitting radio signals that could be picked up by amateur radio operators.

It was an impressive achievement for the Soviet space program — and it terrified the American public. Panicked citizens immediately feared the worst, suspecting that Sputnik was a developmental leap forward in the direction of some unguessed technology that would pave the path for the pinkoes to rain down atomic fire onto our cities.

With the Space Race now “on like Donkey Kong” (as the kids of a later generation would surely have put it), President Dwight D. Eisenhower wasted no time in establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency (“ARPA”) in early 1958.

ARPA was a completely new idea for scientific advancement: a collaboration of government, academia, and industry, with the purpose to develop new and transformative technologies to promote national interests. Because the agency was under direction of the Department of Defense — its offices were literally in the Pentagon — a “D” was soon added and the agency became “DARPA.”

Let's Invent Cool Stuff

One of DARPA’s primary areas of focus was computers, particularly how to make them more powerful, faster, and user-friendly. Its efforts would ultimately bear fruit beyond the wildest imaginings of anyone involved at the time.

Nowadays, however, most people even in the IT industry have little idea of how important DARPA has been to computers, the United States, and by extension the world. Through research and development grants to academic and governmental institutions, DARPA provided the genesis for many of our most important technologies, including:

Global Positioning System (GPS)
Graphical User Interface (GUI)
Computer Mouse (This may have come up before.)
CALO, or Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (The ancestor of Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and others.)
Self-guided Bullets
Google Maps
Stealth Planes and Warships
High Performance Computing
Anti-missile Laser Systems for Naval Ships
MEMS, or Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS are now ubiquitous in our modern machinery, devices, and video games.)
TOR, the open-source software for enabling anonymous communication online

And speaking of “online,” without a doubt DARPA’s most towering contribution to modern life is its key role in bringing about a little thing called “the internet.” DARPA’s ARPANET, as neatly summarized by Wikipedia, was “the first wide-area packet-switched network with distributed control and one of the first networks to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite. Both technologies became the technical foundation of the internet.”

Agency Structure

Sputnik inspires Uncle Sam to invent cool stuff.

DARPA began operations with a mere 150 employees and a budget of $520 million. Surprisingly, the Agency hasn’t grown much since its beginnings. Today, it has approximately 300 employees and an operating budget of $3.8 billion.

Although tiny as federal agencies go, DARPA is considered by those in the know to be the most efficient and cost-effective of all agencies and is often referred to as the example of how government can “spur innovation through research and development investments.”

A big reason DARPA is able to punch above its weight in innovation, is its flat organizational structure. The notable lack of layered bureaucracy facilitates communication and flexibility while simultaneously reducing the confounding bottlenecks of excessive rules and processes.

The agency consists of five divisions called offices: the Director’s Office, the Adaptive Execution Office, the Aerospace Projects Office, the Strategic Resources Office, and the Mission Services Office. Each is led by a single program manager who is solely responsible for providing direction and support for programs.

In addition to an efficient organizational structure, DARPA’s recipe for achievement rests solidly on four unchanging operational principles:

Trust and Autonomy — Because DARPA program managers are directly responsible for the development and success of each project, upper management gives them an incredible degree of trust and autonomy to accomplish objectives.

Rather than submit proposals and then wait for reviews and approval from above, like managers in other agencies, DARPA managers are free to implement and fund new programs and projects on their own. If a project isn’t progressing as hoped, they are also free to terminate it at any time.

Limited Tenure — Unlike other government agencies where program managers stick around for decades and build hidebound fiefdoms, DARPA program managers are hired for a limited time, usually three to five years. It is estimated that 25 percent of program managers turn over annually.

The upside to short tenures is a constant influx of new personnel with new ideas. People who join DARPA are people anxious to bring an idea to fruition. Critics complain that constant turnover among program managers is inefficient and leads to brain drain. Their argument is understandable, but based on DARPA’s track record, it doesn’t seem to be valid.

Sense of Mission — DARPA is the ultimate résumé stuffer. Being asked to join is a high honor, as well as a prestigious recognition of one’s career achievements and abilities. Employees feel that they are part of something special.

New recruits typically come via recommendations from existing personnel, and each is highly motivated to achieve something meaningful during their term — especially since it will contribute to the well-being and even survival of the nation.

Risk-taking and Tolerance for Failure — Program managers are told to “swing for the fences” and not to worry about striking out. Failure is good because it can be learned from and built upon. Management’s encouragement to achieve wonderous  technological breakthroughs is so prevalent that program managers are known to reject projects for “not being sufficiently ambitious.”

Still Going

Sputnik inspires Uncle Sam to invent cool stuff.

DARPA has undoubtedly been the most impactful of all federal agencies. Not only has it protected America, by being the fountain for an unmatched list of technological marvels, but in the process, it has been the impetus in the ultimate creation of numerous multi-billion-dollar industries. Indeed, it is estimated that 70 percent of all U.S. computer research has been funded by DARPA.

Federal agencies are often in the news, not for what they achieve but for being wasteful, inefficient, and burdensome to citizens and businesses. DARPA is a notable exception. Its small team and tiny budget enable it to continue playing a major role in making the United States the world’s leader in technological innovation.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
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About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.