The history of technology is a rich story with individual, institutional, corporate, and governmental protagonists driven by necessity, the pursuit of fame and fortune, and visions of becoming more powerful actors in the world. The invention and proliferation of new technology has been a primary driver of both local and civilization-scale transformation. It’s a story that features brilliance of the highest order, dogged determination, good luck, bad luck, glorious successes, miserable failures, happy accidents, and lamentable unintended consequences. When it was founded in 1958 in the midst of the Cold War with a charge to prevent technological surprise by potential adversaries, DARPA became part of the ongoing technology story and has been conspicuously influential ever since.
One of the classic models of technology development is that it begins with basic research that uncovers a principle or phenomenon, which innovators then apply and develop into a new gadget, practice, or system that enables people to do more than they could before or to do what they did before in better ways. This model cannot account for the origin of all of the technologies DARPA has had a hand in, but it applies to many of them. This collection of vignettes provides a sampling of how DARPA’s commitment to fundamental research has led to new capabilities that have furthered the agency’s national security mission and, at times, transformed society. The collection includes some of DARPA’s greatest hits, among them the foundations of the internet and stealth technology. But it also features lesser known agency-nurtured technologies. Among these are in vitro platforms to speed up the preclinical testing of drug candidates and position, navigation, and timing (PNT) technologies that underlie many military weapons systems and assets as well civilian-sector systems, including those in the banking, telecommunications, and power infrastructures.
We hope this set of vignettes depicts the lasting value of publicly supported investment in government research as it has helped to establish and reinforce the country’s status as a world-leading driver of scientific discovery and technological innovation. Just as yesterday's fundamental research investments made possible today's breakthrough technologies, today's research investments will redefine what becomes possible in the years to come.
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