Co-Developer Of Packet Switching Dies At 84

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Paul Baran, whose ideas partly formed the basis for the packet switching used in the Internet, has died

Paul Baran, an engineer who helped develop the idea of data packet switching in the early 1960s, died on Saturday night at his home in Palo Alto, California at the age of 84. The cause was complications from lung cancer, according to reports.

Baran’s work on packet switching, dating from his time working for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California in the early 1960s, formed part of the basis for the US military network Arpanet, which was the predecessor to the current Internet.

Cold War origins

In a 1997 report Baran explained that his work on packet switching was in part motivated by a stark fear of the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack that would leave the US unable to respond.

Baran was born on 29 April, 1926 in Grodno, Poland, and moved to the US with his parents in 1928. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Drexel Institute of Technology, eventually moving with his wife to Los Angeles. There he worked for Hughes Aircraft and later the computer science department of the RAND Corporation.

As an engineer at RAND, beginning in 1959, he developed an interest in the survivability of communications networks in the event of a nuclear attack. During the early 1960s he worked on a series of 13 papers under contract to the US Air Force concerning “Distributed Communications“.

In these papers Baran detailed the fundamentals for packaging data into discrete bundles called “message blocks” that could be sent along paths around a network to be reassembled at their destination. His papers suggested the idea that networks be designed with redundant routes so that if one failed or were destroyed, the messages could still be delivered.


Similar ideas for distributed data networks were also being pursued independently around the same time by Leonard Kleinrock, at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Donald Davies at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory.

These ideas form the basis for “packet switching”, one of the ideas incorporated into Arpanet when it was built in 1969 by the US’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Baran also co-founded long-range forecasting company the Institute for the Future and started seven companies.

The ideas behind a “survivable network” helped Japan’s Internet network continue to function following the country’s recent earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.