Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Arlington has played many roles on history’s stage, but none more surprising than its status as battlefield in the fight over who created the Internet.

The latest skirmish unfolded May 17, when the County Board dedicated two new historic markers commemorating the Net’s roots at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. Both are now mounted at 1400 Wilson Blvd. in Rosslyn, where the agency cooked up ideas from 1970-75.

The board’s ceremony was not typical small-town fare. With former ARPA director Steve Lukasik and colleagues looking on, a video produced by Arlington Virginia Network documented the first efforts at linking distant computers in the late 1960s. One plaque declares how ARPA “developed the technology that became the foundation for the internet” and how the “innovations inspired by the ARPANET have provided great benefits for society.” The second plaque displays 0’s and 1’s, a tekkie’s in-joke spelling “ARPAnet” in binary code.

Nanoseconds after news of the ceremony broke, naysaying bloggers piped up. Tom Bridge, a technologist with attitude wrote in “We Love DC” that “Arlington is hardly the only place that can lay claim to that contentious `birthplace’ title, and that it’s the municipality laying claim to the title makes me even more skeptical.”

Bridge knowledgably recapped the varied roles at different stages of the Internet’s genesis by contractors at RAND Corp., UCLA, and Cambridge, Mass.-based Bolt, Beranek and Newman. He quoted Internet historian Janet Abbate of Virginia Tech: “It wasn’t [Arlington] in terms of infrastructure … but it was in terms of money and `vision,’ so I guess they have as good a claim as any,” she said. “Arlington County as such had nothing to do with it, though.”

Ouch! That brought an online rebuttal from county communications director Diana Sun: “We never suggested that Arlington County invented the Internet! We are merely seeking to honor the scientists – the forward thinkers” who led the effort at locations around the country, she wrote. “It is the original ARPA team themselves who came up with the idea of creating a historic marker… and wrote the copy.”

Next came the inevitable: a commenter joking he didn’t know Al Gore lived in Arlington. Except Gore did. For decades, in Aurora Hills.
The charge levied by detractors during the 2000 campaign that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet was a distortion of his statement: “During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
The record was set straight (too late for Gore) in 2001 with release of a letter by two undisputed Internet heavies: “No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time” to the Internet’s evolution, wrote Vincent Cerf, then of WorldCom in Ashburn, and Alan Gaines of the National Science Foundation, based in (ahem) Arlington.
There’s another Arlingtonian who helped bring about our era’s dominant technological feat: Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who at Sun Microsystems led the team that built JavaScript. This native son is memorialized in the Yorktown High School Hall of Fame.

Finally, there’s ARPA’s successor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, still visioning away at Virginia Square. It will soon move to new digs at Ballston. There it will have a ringside seat for the next campaign in the battle over bragging rights in our digital lives.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]

 

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