When Al Gore allegedly claimed he invented the Internet, comedians, political pundits and Republicans had a field day mocking him. The amusing humor and misrepresentation of what Gore said hide the deeper issue about the relationship between political patrons and how technologies develop. Gore's actual role in the development of the Internet reveals just how important patrons are.
Technologies do not suddenly emerge like popcorn from a microwave.
As they progress from idea to reality, technologies are pulled, pushed, shaped, mashed, prodded, poked, shifted, cajoled and otherwise subjected to the actions and inactions of people they touch. And without resources to evolve and grow, even the most promising technology will remain only an intriguing possibility.
Creating the fiber optic network, along with the servers, software and other components of what became the Internet, didn't differ from the creation of hundreds of other new technologies in the past. They demanded decades of work by skilled people, lots of money, and other supporting technologies. Like jet aircraft and interchangeable parts, the Internet was financed and promoted by the federal government.
Government decisions, like those in the business world, do not occur in a vacuum. Behind every major invention and inventor stands a patron. For the Internet, Al Gore was that patron. The historic image of a patron is a supporter of the arts, but technologies need support too.
Try to imagine the history of the space program without the commitment of President John F. Kennedy to send men to the moon. Kennedy did not actually build the gigantic Saturn V rocket that launched Americans into space. Nor do patrons of the arts actually paint the art that now graces museum walls. They do, however, supply the resources, usually financial, and other support that make it possible for others to do the work.
Elected representatives may also advocate the development of new technologies. Yes, one tends to find promoters of pork barreling – directing money to specific projects — more than true patrons. But distinguishing the two is easy. The patron works openly, not covertly, to advance his (or her) favored technology. The benefits do not flow only (if at all) to the patron's home state. Finally, the patron promotes a broad vision instead of a specific earmarked project.
So what exactly did Al Gore do and claim he did? In May of 1999, Gore told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "During my service in the U.S. Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." This quickly was mutated into "I created the Internet" and became part of the presidential campaign.
As usual in the history of a technology, the truth is more complex — and interesting. As a Congressman in the 1970s, Gore was a leader in introducing computers into the Congress itself. When he was a Senator, Gore sponsored several bills making the federal government a catalyst for the "information superhighway." While only the 1991 High Performance Computing Act became law, his constant prodding gave the concept high visibility within government and among academic and industry leaders.
More important, Gore was responsible for mandating the 1987 Reagan White House policy study of government computer networks. The 1991 law directed over a billion dollars to connecting computers into national networks linking universities, schools, and other institutions.
Even more important than the money were the goals of improving public access, creating digital libraries, and pushing unclassified technology from the military into the public and commercial spheres. Coordination among government agencies, including NASA and the Department of Defense was strongly encouraged. These activities laid the foundation for the explosive growth of the Internet in the mid-1990s.
In sponsoring his 1991 bill, Gore envisioned a national network that would "provide for teleconferencing, link your computer to millions of computers around the country, give you access to huge 'digital libraries' of information, and deliver services we cannot yet imagine." Not a bad or inaccurate vision.
Gore did not claim he wrote programs or built computers. What he did as a congressman, senator, and vice president was more important: promoting a national policy to transfer defense-funded computer research to the private and educational worlds and to promote universal access.
Some may argue that the Internet would have developed anyway. While true, it would probably have occurred with less public and educational access, and definitely later.
Gore's early initiatives helped shape the Internet into a more open and universal system with more access to federal and university databases than it would have otherwise. We, the citizens, have benefited directly because of this.
Most histories of computing have deservedly revolved around the actual scientists, engineers and users. Conspicuously absent from these histories are politicians, thus tacitly implying that Congress and the President simply approved budget requests from federal agencies. This was not so. At least one elected official actively participated in creating the Internet: Al Gore.
Gore did not create the Internet. Nor did he claim to. He did, however, create a more supportive federal environment that significantly accelerated the development, form, and diffusion of the Internet. If that does not make him the political saint of the Internet, his many years of promotion definitely qualify him as a major patron.
Jonathan Coopersmith is associate professor in the Department of History at Texas A & M University.