The agency that became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created in 1958, one year after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, causing fears in the United States that the country was falling behind technologically, and needed to do something special to regain its innovative edge. Initially focused on military priorities, including developing space technology, ballistic missile defence and solid fuels, DARPA played a key part in creating an early forerunner of what would be known later as the internet.
A year after its creation, DARPA helped put the first ever weather satellite into space. In 1960, it helped establish the field of material science, which has been a source of many valuable innovations for military and non-military uses. The first computer mouse followed in 1964. A 1997 book on the history of information technology credits the agency with “between a third and a half of all the major innovations in computer science and technology.” Among other achievements it also played a key role in developing the stealth technology used in F117 fighter jets and led the miniaturisation of GPS receivers that made possible today’s ubiquitous intelligent navigation systems.
If anyone questions whether the public sctor can play a key role in innovation, they need look no further than the enduring impact on the lives of billions of people of the pioneering work of DARPA.