Hacking, war and the university

In each of the posts in this series about the role of the university in the development of hacker culture, I have indicated that central to a history of hacking should be a greater understanding of the role of military research funding. The role of federal funding from government agencies such as the Dept. of Defence looms so large in the history of hacking that I assumed it would be one of the first posts I wrote but I found that in order to understand funding of this type, I had to explore the history of US higher education, in particular the purpose of the Morrill Act and how it led to the development of universities whose remit was initially ‘applied’ scientific research and vocational training, in contrast to the teaching universities of the mid-nineteenth century, such as Harvard and Columbia. The Land Grant universities’ focus on applied science and a mandated responsibility to the development of their local regions led to research activity that became increasingly entrepreneurial over the decades culminating in the development of the Bayh-Dole Act in the late 1970s during a period of economic decline. Similarly, it was economic conditions during the 1920s that led to the development of a model for handling industrial contracts at MIT which was later used for handling federal funding across several universities during WWII (Etzkowitz, 2002; Lowen, 1997).

The defence-funded ‘AI Lab’ where Richard Stallman worked between 1971 and 1984, must be situated within a complex association of projects, people and funding arrangements at MIT that stretches back to the turn of the nineteenth century. The fact that hacker culture at MIT during the 1960s and 70s was wholly reliant on military funding has been acknowledged but not studied in the existing literature on hacking and the extent to which it was a product of university-military-industrial relations is an area for further study.

Before World War II

Federal funding to US universities was not a significant source of research income until the second World War. Lowen (1997) and Etzkowitz (2002) point to the experience of the First World War and then the Great Depression as stimuli for the closer relationship between universities and federal government. MIT President, Karl Compton, and Vannevar Bush, at that time Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering and former Vice President of MIT, were among a group of academics who “were dissatisfied with the military’s use of academic science during World War I”. (Etzkowitz, 2002, 42) This dissatisfaction should be understood in the context of an eventual shift in science policy leadership from agriculturalists to physicists during the inter-war years (Pielke Jr, 2012). Compton and Bush sought to establish an agency under the control of academics that would liaise with the military and transfer their innovations to a future war effort. Around this time, MIT lost the state funding that had originated with its land grant and entered a financial crisis which almost led MIT to become part of Harvard’s engineering school. To avoid this embarrassment, MIT’s leaders made a conscious effort to develop relations with industry and by the 1930s, the Institute had developed policies for patenting and consulting practices, as well as appealing to alumni networks.

In 1919, MIT implemented a ‘Technology Plan’ in an effort to raise the $8m required to save the Institute. As a beneficiary of many MIT graduates, George Eastman (of Eastman and Kodak) provided half of this sum. Yet despite this support, the Technology Plan was only a partial success with interest from other companies dwindling after the initial contracts expired – after all, MIT were now charging for research services they once provided for free to industry. By 1939, Etzkowitz notes, “it was accepted that the Technology Plan was a failure.” (45). However, the legacy of the plan was much greater as it established an office that negotiated research contracts with industry and this was then used as a model for how government transferred funds to MIT and a few other universities during World War II.

War-time government funding

By the time World War II began, leading academics such as Vannevar Bush, who was by then Head of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, had successfully lobbied government to create a federal agency to co-ordinate military research. In contrast to the relatively low position accorded to academic scientists during the First World War, Bush and others sought to place academics at the heart of government policy-making through the establishment of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) (1940-1). The composition of this ground-breaking committee was revealing: of the eight original members, four were academics, two were from the military, one from business and another the US Commissioner for Patents, underlining the strategic relationship between government, industry and the academy (see LoC records). The most significant achievement of the NDRC’s short history was the formation of the MIT Radiation Lab (‘Rad Lab’), which developed radar technology during the war. The Rad Lab (1940-45) was shut down at the end of the war, but became the model for future ‘labs’ at MIT and elsewhere, such that there is a ‘genealogy’ of labs (such as the AI Lab), projects (e.g. ‘Project MAC’) and people (like Richard Stallman) that can be traced back to the Rad Lab and the NDRC.

In 1941, the NRDC was superseded by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) (1941-7), led by Vannevar Bush. The OSRD was a fully-fledged funding agency for distributing public money to support research at universities. Five universities became the main beneficiaries of this funding during the War: MIT, John Hopkins, Berkeley, Chicago and Columbia, and the OSRD co-ordinated a mass migration of scientists from universities across the country to work at one of these select centres of research.

The increase in research funding during the period of WWII was huge. Mowery et al (2004) show that federal R&D funding went from $784.9m to $12.4bn during the 1940-45 period, more than a fifteen-fold increase (all figures from Mowery et al are in 1996 dollars).  MIT was the largest single recipient ($886m), receiving almost seven times more than Western Electric who were the largest commercial recipient ($130m) (Mowery, 2004, 22). Consequently, the contractual arrangements developed at MIT prior to and during WWII, and the level of funding administered on behalf of the federal government, fundamentally changed the relationship between government and universities. The success of this arrangement led to President Roosevelt requesting Vannevar Bush to draft the famous policy report, Science: The Endless Frontier (1945), where he argued that “basic research” was the basis for economic growth which remains a common though questionable assumption today (Pielke Jr, 2012).

Post-war funding

Despite a brief dip in funding immediately after the war when the OSRD was dissolved and discussions took place over the formation of a new peace-time agency, by 1965 federal funding accounted for 73% of all academic R&D funding to US universities, compared to just 24% in 1935. Post-war funding was dominated by two agencies: defence and health, with military-related funding being split between the Dept. of Defence, NASA and the Dept. of Energy. During the 1960s and 70s “golden age” of hacking at MIT, the overall level of federal funding to universities fluctuated between 73% of all university R&D funding in 1965 to 63% in 1985, by which time a greater percentage of income was being derived from industry, assisted by the Bayh-Dole Act. The Second World War solved MIT’s inter-war financial crisis as Forman has noted:

MIT, on the inside track, emerged from the war with a staff twice as large as it had had before the war, a budget (in current dollars) four times as large, and a research budget ten times as large – 85% from the military services and their nuclear weaponeer, the AEC.

An examination of the funding arrangements for academic R&D during the post-WWI period to the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 reveals dramatic change, not only in the amount of public money being transferred to universities, but also in the way that academic scientists developed much closer relationships with government and re-conceptualised the idea, practice and purpose of science. A new ideology of science was formed, encapsulated by its chief architect, Vannevar Bush in Science: The Endless Frontier, which redefined the “social contract” between scientists and government and argued for the importance of funding for “basic research”. Throughout these developments, dramatic changes were also taking place in the institutional forms of universities and the movement of academic labour from institution to institution and from research project to research project. So-called ‘labs’, like MIT’s Lincoln Lab were large semi-autonomous organisations in themselves, employing thousands of researchers and assistants. They became the model for later ‘science parks’ and spawned projects and research groups which then became independent ‘labs’ with staff of their own, such as the AI Lab. The University of Stanford learned from this model and it arguably led to the creation of Silicone Valley (Etzkowitz, 2002, Gillmor, 2004).

The AI Lab where Richard Stallman worked from 1971-1984, is legendary in the history of hacking (Levy, 1984). Like many MIT labs, it’s origins can be traced back to the Rad Lab through the Lincoln Lab and Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), where some of its personnel formerly worked and developed their thinking around Artificial Intelligence. The AI Lab began as a research group within Project MAC (Multiple Access Computer and Machine-Aided Cognition). Project MAC was set up in 1963 and originally led by Robert Fano, who had worked in the Rad Lab. J.C.R. Licklider, who helped establish the Lincoln Lab and worked at RLE, succeeded Fano as Director of Project MAC in 1968, having worked for DARPA, an agency of the Dept. of Defence, since 1962 and was responsible for the original Project MAC grant. Licklider remained Director of Project MAC until 1971, a year after Marvin Minsky, who worked in Project MAC’s AI research group, led the split to form the AI Lab in 1970, shortly before Stallman arrived as a Research Assistant. In this pre-history of hacker culture, little more needs to be said about the AI Lab as it is well documented in Levy’s book but what I wish to underline is the extent to which the AI Lab and Stallman’s ‘Garden of Eden’ was the strategic outcome of institutional, government and commercial relationships stretching back to the NRDC and the Rad Lab.

A “triple helix” or an “iron triangle”?

To sketch the intertwining history of such labs and projects at MIT alone is not straightforward, and a preliminary effort to do so shows, as one might expect, a great deal of institutional dynamism over the years. As economics conditions and government funding priorities shifted, institutions responded by re-aligning their focus all the while lobbying government and coaxing industry. Etzkowitz refers to this as the ‘triple helix’ of university-industry-government relations and evidence of a “second academic revolution”. Others have been more critical, referring to the “military-industrial-academic complex” – apparently Eisenhower’s original phrase – (Giroux, 2007), and “the “iron triangle” of self-perpetuating academic, industrial and military collaboration.” (Edwards, 1997, referring to Adams, 1982). From every perspective, there is no doubt that these changes gradually took place, spurred on at times by WWII and the Cold War. US universities (and later other national systems of HE) initially incorporated research as a social function of higher education (revolution #1) and then moved to “making findings from an academic laboratory into a marketable product” (revolution #2).  (e.g. Etzkowitz, 1997, 2001) Today, each university such as my own, has an ‘enterprise strategy’, ‘income generation’ targets and various other instruments, which can be traced back to the model that MIT established in the 1920s.

Although the accounts of Etzkowitz and Mowery et al are compelling, they only provide cursory mention of the struggle that has taken place over the years as the university has increased its ties with the military and industry. In particular, such accounts rarely dwell on the opposition and concern within academia to the receipt of large sums of defence funding and the ways in which academics circumvented and subverted their complicit role in this culture. A number of books have been written which do critically examine this ‘second revolution’ or the “iron triangle” (e.g. Edwards, 1997; Leslie, 1993; Heims, 1991; Chomsky et al, 1997; Giroux, 2007; Simpson et al, 1998; Noble, 1977; Turner, 2006; Mindell, 2002; Wisnioski, 2012).

As these critics’ accounts have shown, there has always been a great deal of unease and at times dissent among students and staff at MIT and other universities which were recipients of large amounts of military funding. Although I do not wish to generalise the MIT hackers of the 1960s and 70s as overtly political, they clearly were acting against the constraints of an intensifying managerialism within institutions across the US and in particular the rationalisation of institutional life pioneered by the Engineering profession and its ties with corporate America (Noble, 1977). Hackers’ attraction to time-sharing systems, the ability to personalise computing, programmatic access to the underlying components of computers and the use of computers for leisure activities is characteristic of a sub-culture within the university (Levy, 1985; Wisnioski, 2012) and to some extent the developing counter-culture of that period (Turner, 2006). Such accounts, I think, are vitally important to understanding the development of hacker culture as are the more moderate accounts of federal funding and the development of the entrepreneurial university.

My final post in this series highlights the relationship between venture capital, the university and hacking.