Lawrence Roberts, ARPANET Engineer Whose Work Led To The Modern Internet, Dies At 81


Lawrence Roberts, acknowledged as the designer of ARPANET, the precursor of today's internet, passed away on Dec. 26 in his home in Redwood City, Calif.

Roberts, 81, died of a heart attack, according to the New York Times.

Roberts -- along with Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, and Len Kleinrock -- is generally considered one of the founders of the internet.

[Related: Chuck Thacker, Developer Of The Xerox Alto Personal Computer, Dies at 74]

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Roberts was a manager at the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, in the late 1960s when he brought together a group of colleagues with a similar interest in computer networking to create the technology that would manage the flow of data between computers.

He became known for two key technologies that underpinned the ARPANET, which would eventually become what is now the internet.

The first was his decision to implement packet switching, a technology that breaks a message into a number of parts which are sent independently over different routes based on the optimum route for each packet and then reassembles the packets at the destination. Packet switching is today the primary technology for data communications over computer networks.

The second was his decision to build distributed control of the network so that programming, software, and data are spread across multiple computers.

Roberts was born Dec. 21, 1937, and from an early age showed an interest in electronics. In 2017, he told the Computer History Museum that when he was young, he built a Tesla coil, designed induction cooking, and built his own television just as TVs were starting to get popular. When he was in college, he built a transistorized telephone exchange for a Girl Scout camp from components he picked up at a junkyard.

When working at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the late 1960s, Roberts worked on the TX-2 computer that would be the base on which Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC, was spun off. Dr. Leonard Kleinrock developed the theory of packet networks and simulated them on the TX-2. Roberts based the concept of packet switching from that experience.

Roberts and a team of programmers eventually built a network to tie the MIT Lincoln Laboratory computer with the SDC Q-32 computer in Santa Monica, Calif. With support from ARPA, the concept was expanded to a program to tie four incompatible computers together to support sharing of compute resources, including computers at the University of California Los Angeles, the Sandford Research Institute, The University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah School of Computing.

The first successful ARPANET message was sent in 1969. ARPANET was eventually commercialized as the internet.

Roberts left ARPA to found a couple of companies that developed other internet-related technologies, including Telenet, the first company to commercialize packet switch technology, and Anagran, a developer of IP flow management technology. He also served as president and CEO of DHL, and was CEO of NetExpress, president of ATM Systems, and chariman and CTO of Caspian Networks.

Roberts is survived by his long-time companion, Dr. Tedde Rinker, as well as by son Pasha and two sisters.

John Zammett, president of HorizonTek, a Huntington, N.Y.-based solution provider, still remembers reading about the ARPANET but not really understanding what it might do for him.

However, Zammett told CRN, he was a control freak and purchased one of the first cell phones offered commercially in the 1980s so he could maintain communications with the office. The importance of instantaneous communications was driven home when his secretary called while he was on the golf course to say an important client needed that day a quote on memory, and because of the cell phone was able to close a million-dollar deal in 15 minutes.

His first exposure to the internet came via an early 1980s conversation with several buddies in the Sports Bar at the Caesars Palace during Comdex. One of those friends said he should look at email.

"It took a year to understand how it would impact my business," he said. "But the cell phone showed the importance of fast communications. So I eventually saw the need for email."

In those early days, it was hard to understand just how much impact the work done by Roberts and other pioneers of the internet would eventually have, Zammett said.

"In the early '80s, I had three computers for work given to me by IBM, AT&T, and Sperry Rand so I could demonstrate our tape drives at conferences," he said. "I also set them up for my kids to do homework. I told them someday they would no longer need to purchase CDs, but instead they would be able to acquire data via the computer, but not in my lifetime. I was off by 30 years."