Published by EH.NET (November 2009)
Paul E. Ceruzzi, Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945 to 2005. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. xi + 242 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-262-03374-9.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Glenn Bugos, NASA Ames Research Center, Sunnyvale, California.
Paul Ceruzzi structures Internet Alley much like a James Michener novel: an intense focus on a small plot of land, its history told in decades stretching over a century, big egos roaming the landscape, and moments of historical significance appearing when the characters least expected it.
Ceruzzi focuses on the four square miles of Tysons Corner, Virginia lying ten miles to the west of Washington, D.C. It stands today as the third largest agglomeration of high-tech firms in America, ranking behind Silicon Valley and Route 128, and as a center of affluence in the Washington Metropolitan area. The story starts, as many stories of the New South do, with the American Civil War, and the construction of canals, roads and rails that crossed this quiet farming and dairy town. With the Cold War heating up in the 1950s, the federal government looked to disperse its infrastructure. Bomb threats led to ring roads and a mobilization-grade airport, and the Washington Beltway and Dulles Airport reaffirmed the geographical blessings of Tysons Corner. Ceruzzi does a good job describing the natural attributes of this place.
What is best about this book, though, is how it outlines the evolution of federal policy toward funding defense science and engineering and how it affected regional development and employment which ? in large part ? those policies were designed to do. Vannevar Bush taught the federal government how to contract for intellectual work as World War II came to a close. Into the 1950s, in order to design ever more complex weapon systems, the defense department embraced systems engineering and operations research. These developments had the most profound impact on northern Virginia in the early 1960s, when Robert McNamara used systems analysis to shift the balance of power toward his Office of the Secretary of Defense and away from the military services and their airframe contractors. The Pentagon under McNamara wanted to keep their systems analysts nearby. BDM (Braddock-Dunn-McDonald) was one of the first such firms to move into Tysons Corner, and alumni of the RAND Corp. formed other key firms. The political and business leaders of Tysons Corner then welcomed these firms with favorable zoning rules, entrepreneurial real estate developers like Til Hazel, aggressive local banks, and suburban housing and shopping malls attractive to affluent suburban professionals.
The Norman Cole Report of 1976 launched Fairfax County?s push to lure other businesses. Telecommunications firms, like MCI, set up shop in the wake of ATT?s dismantling. From this admixture of telecommunications firms ? who were laying cable across the country ? and systems engineering contractors ? who needed to move around massive amounts of data ? the internet firms were born.
This book fits into no easy category in the historiography of modern business and technology. Despite the title, it is not really about the internet economy. Despite the subtitle, it is not really a fully-developed regional history of Tysons Corner. Ceruzzi tells you all this in his introduction. This is a book about an author trying to figure out a place. Ceruzzi?s chosen media is narrative history. As curator of computing at the National Air and Space Museum, his work includes A History of Modern Computing (2003) and The Internet and American Business (with Bill Aspray 2008). It?s not surprising he took to writing historical narrative to answer what was, at heart, a simple and personal question. ?Who are these guys?? he wondered as he drove through Tysons Corner on his way to the new Udvar-Hazy branch of NASM at Dulles Airport. The buildings there are essentially featureless: isolated from their terrain by a moat of parking lots, windows glazed. If any signs name the occupants, those names are enigmatic.
Indeed, there is much Ceruzzi never discovers about the occupants. Many of his corporate histories are condensed to a paragraph, drawn from public filings. The lack of primary documentation is especially clear as the story approaches the present. Only one chapter really discusses the internet economy and the star in this chapter is the abandoned route of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. This was the alley ?where cyberspace was connected with the ground? (p. 157). This was the alley along which was laid the fiber optic cable that connected the major players in Northern Virginia?s internet economy. These major players included the Information Processing Techniques Office of the Defense Department?s Advanced Research Projects Office, Bolt Beranek and Newman?s Telenet subsidiary, the MAE-EAST routers which carried the early traffic of the commercial internet, and Network Solutions, Inc., which registered internet addresses. In 1998, five of the thirteen top level name servers of the internet were located along the Dulles corridor. While firms in other regions drove the technical creativity and business innovation of the internet, in Tysons Corner the internet as a system was managed and governed. By contrast, CompuServe and AOL brought a telecommunications sensibility, in bringing individual consumers onto the web. We know Tysons Corner was tied to the internet by the number of firms which went black when the internet bubble burst in 2000. After September 11, 2001, telecommunications and defense firms rejoined alliances to focus on defense intelligence, and the area started booming once again.
Ceruzzi captures all the excitement of writing the first book on a new topic. What might otherwise be seen as weaknesses emerge instead as questions well-outlined and awaiting a fuller answer. For example, we read about the myriad conditions that allowed this development to happen in northern Virginia, but only hints about why it did not happen in Maryland. Maryland has tried to catch up by nurturing biotechnology start-ups near the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Beltsville Research Station, but with mixed success. Tysons Corner, Ceruzzi says, has a few times reinvented itself ? the rise of the Great Society with the end of the Vietnam War, the end of the Cold War, the internet crash. Silicon Valley and Route 128 persistently renew themselves; it sets them apart from the many more industrial districts and technology parks that fail. We learn little, though, about how the broader business infrastructure of Tysons Corner enabled its technology firms to weather these periods of transition. One additional complaint: in a book about geography, there are no good maps.
Ceruzzi does a remarkable job exploring the intersection between defense spending, land use policies, highway construction and suburbanization. He ends with a futuristic glance. Edge cities like Tysons Corner today are challenged by larger demographic trends, as transportation systems feel the strain. As people drive through Tysons Corner, they likely don?t see the enigmatic buildings around them, prompting questions about how technology is rooted in place ? but only see the bumper in front of them.
Glenn Bugos is historian with the NASA Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California.