This piece is a part of a FreakTakes series. The goal is to put together a series of administrative histories on specific DARPA projects just as I have done for many industrial R&D labs and other research orgs on FreakTakes. The goal — once I have covered ~20-30 projects — is to put together a larger ‘ARPA Playbook’ which helps individuals such as PMs in ARPA-like orgs navigate the growing catalog of pieces in a way that helps them find what they need to make the best decisions possible. In service of that, I am including in each post a bulleted list of ‘pattern language tags’ that encompass some categories of DARPA project strategies that describe the approaches contained in the piece — which will later be used to organize the ARPA Playbook document. These tags and the piece itself should all be considered in draft form until around the Spring of 2024. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or email (egillia3 | at | alumni | dot | stanford | dot | edu) to recommend additions/changes to the tags or the pieces. Also, if you have any ideas for projects from ARPA history — good, bad, or complicated — that would be interesting for me to dive into, please feel free to share them!
DARPA’s multi-decade investment in developing early versions of parallel processing computers provides a lot to learn from for ARPA-style PMs. Two of DARPA’s most prominent, long-standing investments in this area took two completely different approaches to push the technology base forward in a coordinated fashion. Both are viewed as successes to some and abject failures to others. In this piece, I will dive into the operational structures that informed DARPA’s investments both in the ILLIAC IV parallel processing computer in the late 1960s — the project was based out of the University of Illinois under a researcher named Daniel Slotnick — and in the young Thinking Machines Company in the 1980s and their Connection Machine computer — which brought them fame and infamy in the computing world in the years in which DARPA was most heavily involved with the company.