Boeing and The Internet - Part II

Vannevar Bush's seminal article As We May Think in July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly did not describe a planetary information and communications network.  But in describing his vision for a Memex machine, at one point he casually mentions that it "it can be presumably operated from a distance."  His other references in the article to novel applications of television equipment are at least suggestive that his thought processes were headed in that direction. 

An explicit description of such a network would have to wait until J.C.R. Licklider's memo to his colleagues at ARPA which he distributed on April 23, 1963 addressed as follows:

MEMORANDUM FOR: Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.  

And with that, the concept of something like the internet as we know it today was born.  

But getting there would be another story.  There was the small matter of practical scalability.  The progenitor networks that would step by step, evolve to become the net, each contributed significant solutions.  And something quiote tantalizing began to develop in the mid 1970s that suggested we were on the cusp of making such a network possible.  And that something had absolutely nothing to do with Minuteman HICS, ARPAnet, or the early Internet.  It actually began as an engineering solution to delivering broadcast television to rural America:  CATV


Most massive new bits of infrastructure that humans have built over the past 3,000 years have started in urban areas and spread outward from there, if they spread at all.  But, the infrastructure that would become the core of the modern internet started in exactly the opposite direction.  In the 1948 Community Antenna Television began in rural Oregon and Pennsylvania where mountains were blocking access to the signals from the nearest TV stations.  These scattered systems evolved slowly, but tended to share a common technological path.  The Federal government did not become involved until first the construction costs became a tax issue, and then in 1959 the FCC began to wonder if its Congressional mandates made it necessary to establish some rules.  The courts gave the FCC some limited authority in 1963, while Congress was stuck not knowing what to do.

In the 1960's, several telephone companies which had experience in the construction of rural infrastructure decided CATV was for them.  But it would not be until 1970 that the FCC would find a clear economic mandate within its charter to seriously get involved in regulating what was now called cable television.  Then in 1976 the copper coaxial cables began to be replaced by the then new fiber optic systems.  Congress finally did something useful and modified the copyright statutes to set some rules for licensing the retransmission of broadcast TV over CATV systems, and the courts removed the FCC rules that had constrained "Pay TV" growth, even though those rules came about because of the prior court cases.  This setup the legal framework for the sale of CATV franchises which began in earnest in 1978.  Growth skyrocketed, as the further out suburbs of large urban areas began have cable systems built in their neighborhoods because the quality was so much better, and it got rid of the unsightly antennas on people's roofs.  That same year, then-Senator Al Gore Jr. gave a speech at a computer industry conference and talked about the possibility of building what he called The Information Superhighway which was a term he seems to have invented.

The thing is, that the idea of leveraging the CATV infrastructure to build Gore's telling of Licklider's vision had absolutely nothing to do with what was going on in the defense industry.  And as it turned out, the better engineers and business model visionaries were working on the Internet, and not The Information Superhighway.  The superhighway folks made a total mess of things because the chose a target business model that the public would never accept, and and engineering methodology that was, at best, incompetent due to its being run by finance guys and corporate politicians.  This mess started to playout inside Boeing in a very big way.  It would pit the defense side of the company against commercial airplane and BCS.  It would all come to a head in the Fall of 1989, and reverberate throughout the entire computer and software industries in a way that has also never been written about.