Lawrence G. Roberts, the man whose work would eventually allow us to send each other cat GIFs and get into arguments in comments sections, has died of a heart attack in his California home. Roberts was a major force behind Arpanet, the direct precursor to the internet. He was 81.
Lawrence "Larry" Roberts. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In the 1960s, Roberts was a manager at the United States' Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA, where he guided the development of Arpanet. Although he worked primarily as a program manager, many of the decisions he made form the basis of the internet as we know it. Roberts made the decision, for example, to use packet switching, which breaks data down into smaller chunks for transmission across a distributed network. This is the basis upon which all network communication is built even today.
From Arpanet sprung many of the concepts that still power the internet, such as electronic mail and FTP. The network even had a primitive voice protocol that was never put into use. Roberts wrote the very first email, according to an interview he gave (transcribed to his personal site, Packet.cc) in 1996 with Silicon Valley Radio, back when there was a question about whether electronic mail without U.S. postage would even be legal. In the same interview, Roberts noted that at the time, the idea of a distributed network was one that even other computer scientists found difficult to get on board with. This is not to mention the resistance he faced from telecom companies who had a vested interest in communication staying a primarily voice-driven thing.
After leaving Arpanet in 1973, the MIT grad would go on to found or co-found a series of companies built upon computer networking, including Telenet, NetExpress, and Anagran. The New York Times notes that Roberts is survived by his partner Dr. Tedde Rinker, his son Pasha, and two sisters.