Paul Baran was an immigrant, an engineer, and a really bright guy. He joined the RAND Corporation in 1959 and by the account in Walter Issacson’s The Innovators was still trying to figure out what his life’s mission was.
As he was looking through military requests for products, he seized upon building a communication system capable of surviving a nuclear strike and realized that successful completion of such a system could actually avoid nuclear war, by reducing the likelihood of a first strike. Follow the logic:
If either the US or USSR believed that war was imminent, they may be inclined as to strike first to knock out communication hubs of the other to avoid their communications from being struck. In other words, he realized the most important strategic element in a catastrophic war would be means of communication. If there was a system capable of surviving a strike, or strikes, then one side or the other would be less likely to preemptively attack to avoid their communications being cut.
At this time, American military communications used high frequency connections which could be put out of action for many hours or permanently disabled by a nuclear attack. Baran realized that a distributed relay node architecture – one where messages were broken up into pieces, sent along different routes and pieced back together – would created a system that would not be easily disrupted and would be scalable.
How visionary was this? Consider this anecdote from the Rand Corporation website:
In an interview with Wired magazine, Baran discussed his vision of how the new technology might be used. “Around December 1966, I presented a paper at the American Marketing Association called ‘Marketing in the Year 2000.’ I described push-and-pull communications and how we’re going to do our shopping via a television set and a virtual department store. If you want to buy a drill, you click on Hardware and that shows Tools and you click on that and go deeper.”
Now, I said he was a pretty bright guy, and to wit, it took some time to conceive, test, and demonstrate proof of concept but that was accomplished by 1960. He spent the better part of the 1960’s trying to convince industry of the idea. Sometimes entrenched interests are harder to conquer than technological challenges.
This work basically set forth the structure under which data – think email – is distributed through the modern internet today. Baran helped set the building blocks of how we get work accomplished today with his desire to stop nuclear annihilation. Consider for a moment how important this would have been to someone who emigrated from Poland – then controlled by the Soviet Union and indeed the part of Poland from which he came had actually been annexed by the Soviet Union and is today part of Belarus.
Indeed his personal mission was so important to him that he resisted efforts to have his work classified because in his conception, it would work best if the Soviets had technology that would ensure their communications remained in tact as well. No one would have an incentive to launch a first strike.
Baran stands, to me, for the power of one person taking stock of his talents and knowing where his moral compass lies and finding a connection in the two. Sometimes, just sometimes, having a larger meaning leads to amazing things. Over a half century later, his work (and the work of others to be sure) allows you to communicate instantly across the globe, but could arguably have prevented nuclear war as well. Consider that for a bit.