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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Well-Known Visionary Helped Create Two Major Highway Systems

By Paul Niemann

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[February 28, 2008]  One way to judge an innovation's importance is to imagine life without it. This story is about two such innovations.

Both were a result of war, namely World War II and the Cold War. In order to keep the innovator's identity secret at this point, we will refer to him his first and middle initials -- D.D.

The first innovation affected our transportation system, while the second affected our communication system. More than 50 years ago, in February of 1955, D.D. said, "The united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear -- United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts."

When D.D. visited Germany during World War II, he noticed how the autobahns improved that country's transportation system. He also felt that an improved highway system was necessary for a strong national defense.

The result of his work is our nation's interstate highway system. It began in 1956 when the president signed the Federal Aid Highway Act. Here are a few little-known facts about our interstate system:

  • The longest interstate is I-90, which covers 3,081 miles from Boston to Seattle, while the shortest interstate is I-878 in New York City. It covers exactly 3,696 feet, which is seven-tenths of a mile.

  • Only one state has no interstate highway. That would be Alaska. Hawaii has three interstate highways, although they are obviously not connected to other states.

  • When the last stoplight on the interstate system was removed in the 1980s in Wallace, Idaho, the locals gave it a proper burial in the local cemetery, complete with a 21-gun salute.

Out nation's interstate system is called the Eisenhower Interstate System, named after the visionary who created it -- President Dwight David Eisenhower. He was our 34th president, from 1953 to 1961.

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Pretty neat, but the other highway system credited to President Eisenhower circles the world many times each day. That would be the information superhighway known as the Internet.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. government figured that a nuclear attack could wipe out our intelligence system. To prevent this, the Department of Defense created ARPA, which stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency. By 1969, computer scientists had begun efforts to connect supercomputers from four major universities -- UCLA, Stanford, UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Utah -- that could exchange information with each other. This computer network became known as the ARPAnet.

The National Science Foundation linked these supercomputers together and they eventually replaced the ARPAnet in 1990, becoming what is now the Internet. It was President Eisenhower who made the decision to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency, even though he did not work for the Department of Defense.

Here are a few interesting facts that you might not have known about the Internet:

  • In 1991, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, chose not to patent it so that everyone could have access to the Web, bypassing a fortune in the process. He also knew that the only way it could reach its full potential was to leave it unpatented.

  • The early version of the Internet was designed to allow military installations to exchange information with each other by computer.

  • Despite the fact that the Web now has millions of sites, there were only 130 in 1993.

In addition to playing a major role in creating both the interstate highway and the Internet, President Eisenhower also put an end to the Korean War.

We managed to make it through a story about the Internet without cracking a single joke about Al Gore claiming to have invented it.

I guess I'm losing my touch.


Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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