Monday, May 18, 2009

Packet switching: Success has many fathers

It's true. Literally. I grew up on the widely disseminated myth that inventions came like a bolt from the blue through the center of some genius' forehead. We were taught to look upon them with awe and wonder, hoping to become one of them even while secretly suspecting that such an achievement was unattainable.


The mundane - and yet fascinating - truth is that the forces of complexity and self-organization on which this entire universe is founded conspire to create multiple fathers of any retrospectively recognized 'genius invention'. I had been absolutely certain that Edison was the sole, or at least principal inventor of the incandescent lamp until I learned that efforts in that direction had been in the works for a century until Edison perfected it. Yes, we do all stand on the shoulders of giants. Inventions appear on the shore of human society like a series of waves that creep up gradually, each successive wave making it further up the shore until one rises high enough that it is able to breach the highest point near the shore. Each wave represents an inventor, or an era of invention, making some progress, not quite achieving a high level of success, but creating a waterline that serves as a benchmark for future waves of inventors. Inventions and innovations more frequently happen in a social context than in isolation. It requires the collective efforts of many find minds and busy hands to breach the walls of status quo.

So too in this case of the invention of packet switching, the fundamental technology on which the internet and all digital communications is based. While a BBC story -- quite predictably --ascribes the origins of this seminal technology to the work of a British scientist, Donald Davies, an online discussion among people familiar with the technology (also known as geeks) suggests many other equally (or more) deserving names.
But the only reason that the net and the web can cope with that punishing pace is thanks to work done four decades ago by British mathematician Donald Davies at the UK's National Physical Laboratory (NPL). On 5 August 1968 Dr Davies gave the first public presentation of work he had been doing on a method of moving data around computer networks called "packet switching".

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