Paul Baran

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
Albert Einstein

Paul Baran (1926-2011)
Paul Baran (1926-2011)

Three people can be credited as inventors of packet-switched networks, thus laying the foundations for the Internet: Paul Baran, Leonard Kleinrock, and Donald Davies.

In 1959 Paul Baran (1926-2011), a Litvak (Lithuanian Jew), whose family emigrated to the USA when he was a child (interestingly, Leonard Kleinrock was also born to a Jewish-American family), obtained his Master’s degree in Engineering from UCLA and began working for the Research And Development (RAND) research organization in the same year. RAND was founded in Santa Monica, California, soon after WWII to help maintain the unique system analysis and operations research skills developed by the US military to manage the unprecedented scale of planning and logistics during that global conflict.

The US Air Force had recently established one of the first wide area computer networks for the SAGE radar defense system and had an increasing interest in reliable and survivable, wide area communications networks, so they could reorganize and respond after a nuclear attack, diminishing the attractiveness of a first strike option by the main enemy—Soviet Union.

Relying on his experience in the radio networks, Baran began an investigation into the development of survivable communications networks, the results of which were first presented to the Air Force in the summer of 1961, and then he wrote a series of eleven comprehensive papers, which appeared in a series of RAND studies, published between 1960 and 1962, and then in a book, titled On Distributed Communications in 1964.

Baran’s study describes a remarkably detailed architecture for a distributed, survivable, packet-switched communications network. The network is designed to withstand almost any degree of destruction to individual components without loss of end-to-end communications. Since each computer could be connected to one or more other computers, Baran assumed that any link of the network could fail at any time, and the network, therefore, had no central control or administration (see the lower scheme).

The network scheme of Baran
The network scheme of Paul Baran

Using a mini-computer, Baran and his team developed simulation programs to test the basic connectivity of an array of nodes with varying degrees of linking. That is, a network of n-ary degree of connectivity would have n links per node. The simulation randomly destroyed nodes and subsequently tested the percentage of nodes that remained connected. The result of the simulation revealed that networks where n>=3 had a significant increase in resilience against even as much as 50% node loss. Baran’s conviction gained from the simulation was that redundancy was the key.

Baran’s work was accepted by the US Air Force for implementation and testing but was neglected. His series of papers and books however then influenced Larry Roberts and Kleinrock to adopt the technology for the development of the ARPANET network a few years later. Actually, the ARPANET was never intended to be a survivable communications network, but some people still maintain the myth that it was. Instead, the resilience feature of a packet-switched network, that uses link-state routing protocols is something we enjoy today in some part from the research done to develop a network that could survive a nuclear attack.

While working at the RAND, in addition to his innovation in networking products, Baran also created the first metal detector, used today in all airports and many other security points.

Paul Baran left RAND to become an entrepreneur and private investor in the early 1970s, and founded a couple of telecommunication companies—, and co-founded the Institute for the Future.

Baran holds several patents and has received numerous professional honors, including the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the Marconi International Fellowship Award, and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Paul Baran was the finest gentleman and an extremely creative man. However, he believed that innovation was a “team process” and he didn’t seek credit for himself. He once said: “Many of the things I thought possible would tend to sound like utter nonsense, or impractical depending on the generosity of spirit in those brought up in an earlier world.”

Biography of Paul Baran

Paul Baran (1926-2011)
Paul Baran (1926-2011)

Paul Baran was born in the town of Grodno (then in Poland, now in Belarus) as Павел Баранов (Yiddish given name “Pesach”, one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, usually in April) on 29 April 1926, as the youngest of three children (Paul had a sister, Harriet (1915-1995), and a brother, Herbert (1919-1966)) in the Jewish family of Мойше (Моррис) Баран (Morris “Moshe” Baran) (1884–1979) and Хана-Фейга (Анна) Серейская (Anna Seren-Baran) (1893-1972) (baran is a Slavic word for ram (male sheep)). In May 1928, the Baran family moved to the United States, first to Boston, where Moshe found work in a shoe factory, then to Philadelphia, where he established a small grocery store. As a child, little Paul delivered groceries for his father in his little red wagon.

In 1949 Baran received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia and immediately was hired by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company as a technician on the world’s first commercial computer, the Univac. In 1950 he went to the Raymond Rosen Engineering Products Company, where he designed the first telemetering equipment for Cape Canaveral. In 1955 Baran married Evelyn Murphy, moved to Los Angeles, and joined the Hughes Aircraft Company, where he worked for 4 years, at the same time preparing for his Master’s degree.

After his grounding work for survivable communications networks in the early 1960s, in 1968, Baran founded the Institute for the Future and was then involved in other networking technologies developed in Silicon Valley. Baran participated in a review of the NBS proposal for a Data Encryption Standard in 1976. In the early 1980s, Baran founded PacketCable Inc., “to support impulse-pay television channels, locally generated videotex, and packetized voice transmission.” He founded Telebit after conceiving its discrete multitone modem technology in the mid-1980s. In 1985, Baran founded Metricom, the first wireless Internet company, which deployed Ricochet, the first public wireless mesh networking system. In 1992, he also founded Com21, an early cable modem company. After Com21, Baran founded and was president of GoBackTV, which specializes in personal TV and cable IPTV infrastructure equipment for television operators. Most recently, he founded Plaster Networks, providing an advanced solution for connecting networked devices in the home or small office through existing wiring.

Baran extended his work in packet switching to wireless-spectrum theory, developing what he called “kindergarten rules” for the use of wireless spectrum. In addition to his innovation in networking products, he is also credited with inventing the first doorway gun detector.

Paul Baran was a genius, but also an extremely modest man. He had told the Times in 1990 “The process of technological development is like building a cathedral. Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, I built a cathedral… If you are not careful you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part.”

His son David Baran remembered that his father had shown him a paper written in 1966 that speculated about what people would do with telecommunication networks in the future. “It spelled out this idea that by the year 2000 the people would be using online networks for shopping and news,” he said. “It was an absolute lunatic fringe idea.”

Paul Baran died of lung cancer on 28 March 2011, in Palo Alto, California. His wife, Evelyn, died in 2007. In addition to his son, David, of Atherton, California, he was survived by three grandchildren.