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The man who invented data packets

Remembering Paul Baran and his work in networking.

March 31, 2011


I read the obituaries in the paper every day, because it’s interesting to see who turns up. From time to time, a figure appears that has had an impact on our world of automation. Paul Baran was such a figure. If you don’t recognize the name (I confess that I didn’t), you’ll be forgiven, but you should know his work. Baran invented (more or less) the idea of data packets for sending information between computers. He and his colleagues found that using asynchronous digital rather than analog signals would be better, but this was pretty early in its development at the time. These ideas are pretty basic to the Internet and Ethernet, which means we use it every day. This happened back in the 1960s as part of a project to create decentralized networking robust enough to survive nuclear attack. He did this work while working for the RAND Corporation.

Even in 1966 he imagined how such capabilities would change our lives, and suggested that by 2000 we’d be shopping and getting our news online.

If you have some time, there is a fascinating video of Baran discussing how all this took place. It will take you back to the scary days of the cold war. It’s interesting to see how those motivations gave us what we have today.