DARPA: 50 years of breakthroughs and blunders

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If there’s any office that resembles the quirky, geeky workshop of James Bond’s Q, it’s probably the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Launched in reaction to Sputnik, DARPA is the research wing of the Department of Defense. Workers there design new-age lasers, satellites, unmanned vehicles, advanced prosthetics – and that’s only what they’ve made public. Now celebrating its 50th year, DARPA has conceived and constructed countless advances – many of which are used far away from the battlefield.

In honor of this golden anniversary, New Scientist whipped up two Top 5 lists – DARPA’s five biggest breakthroughs and its five biggest blunders. Here’s a sample from each:

The Internet: Precisely who “invented” the mass of linked computer networks that is today’s Internet is a moot point. But it wouldn’t have happened without the ARPANET network built by DARPA in the 1960s. The idea was to make a “self-healing” communications network that still worked when parts of it were destroyed. It was the first network to transmit data in discrete chunks, not constant streams, and led to the development of the [Internet] specification still in use today.
The mechanical elephant: Frustrated by a lack of decent tarmac in the jungle, DARPA sought to create a “mechanical elephant” during the Vietnam war. Its vision of high-tech Hannibals piloting them through the forest never came true. It is alleged that when the director heard of the plan, he scrapped the “damn fool” project immediately in the hope that no one would hear about it.

Here’s the NS articles (which includes entries on GPS and telepathic spies – guess which one didn’t work) and a video timeline from DARPA’s website.

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