Europäische Zeitgeschichte

Facing parallel inventions: the French telecommunications strategies in the digital field (mid-1950s to mid-1990s)

This panel on parallel inventions is an opportunity to rethink 15-years of research on data networks and digitization from the perspective of simultaneity.
The subject of parallel inventions in the field of data networks immediately brings to mind the outset of packet switching, a key concept of Arpanet and Internet (Bay, 2019) that was developed in the 1960s by several players, namely Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation, Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA and Donald Davies at the NPL (National Physical Laboratory) in Great Britain. Yet this Zeitgeist surrounding packet switching is not the only example of parallel ideas and projects within the history of data networks, nor is it limited to the US context.
My presentation therefore aims to shift the focus to deepen our understanding of simultaneous inventions, turning away from the cumbersome examination of the “great figures” towards collective innovation and adoption. To do so, we will look at the telecommunications sector. Since the 1950s, this sector in the United States, France, Great Britain and other European countries has been confronted with computer needs and the challenge of building data networks based on their infrastructure – communication lines were mainly monopolized by telecommunication companies in Europe until the end of the 1980s. Several parallel paths were experimented during the period from the transition to electronic switching in phone equipment to the development of standards such as X25, which competed with Internet protocols in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrating that innovation is not a linear process.
Rather than discuss AT&T’s hostility towards packet switching as implemented in Arpanet, which has already been well documented (Abbate, 1999), this study will look at the French telecommunications administration and show how those responsible for the communication lines needed for French networks were positioning themselves to face the changes that had begun in the 1950s, whilst assessing parallel inventions that were either internal or external to the administration.
Our paper will therefore focus less on invention per se than on the response to simultaneous inventions, and will review several simultaneous paths in the history of digital networks that French telecommunications had to face, and the associated process of collective decision-making. We will start by presenting the parallel development of spatial and temporal switching in the second half of the 1950s, then look at the simultaneous experiment of Caducée and Hermès networks (early 1970s). Complementary case studies will cover the debate about virtual circuits and datagrams from the 1970s to the 1990s, standardization within the field of telematics and the first Web offers in the transition period from the Minitel to the Web in the 1990s.
Our analysis aims to establish a typology of the administration’s choices and attitudes, which differ according to whether the alternative is an internal solution or from an external source, but also according to the periods, from the telecommunications monopoly to the 1990s deregulation. In this way, we aim to reveal how inventions were not only connected to the technical context and knowledge, but were also shaped by those who were interested in the resulting technology.

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