David Mills. A Freewheeling Zealot to Whom the World Owes Much

On January 17th, a man you never heard of died at the age of 85. Years earlier, he invented something you never heard of, either. Whilst working for an organization so secret, whoever told you about it would have probably had to kill you.

David Mills invented internet time synchronization. A protocol that co-ordinates the time of every connected device in the world, the accuracy of which is measured in nanoseconds.

A Cold War Initiative

It was back in 1968, that this young computer scientist entered the inner sanctum of U.S. technology development, called Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Apparently situated 100 foot beneath the ground floor of the Pentagon, DARPA was initiated after an executive order from President Eisenhower, reacting to the successful launch of Russia’s Sputnik, the first man-made object in space.  Eisenhower was afraid of the Soviet Union’s ability to construct a military platform in space from which to launch a nuclear attack on America.

The specialists who populated DARPA likened themselves to ‘freewheeling zealots who dreamed stuff up’, and they exist today, although in a more formalized structure that the long-haired, scruffy acidhead miscreant geniuses had constructed for themselves in the sixties and early seventies. So much so that The Economist once called them the agency that shaped the world.

They’ve been publicly credited with some major tech advances. but mostly, their work is so hush-hush that only the head of the armed forces or CIA have oversight. Stealth technology was their brainchild, for instance. In this case, everyone was under the threat of treason charges if they talked about it. Until Skunkworks rolled out the first aircraft with stealth capabilities.

But the invention DARPA was responsible for which is relevant to this piece, was the ARPANET, which we know today as the internet.

David Mills worked on ARPANET in an attempt to synchronise the 1000 or so computers which formed this new network. ARPANET was primarily a military communications tool.  Whilst he was developing the necessary protocols he foresaw just how vital a synchronized world would be. He knew, sooner or later, ARPANET would evolve.  

Network Time Protocol (NTP) was the nomenclature given to his work, and he spent years refining and policing its application.

How Important is NTP?

Without NTP, the internet and telecommunications would be chaos, as synchronicity is vital when different systems communicate with each other. But of all the different functions which are made possible in our new world because of NTP, it could be reasonably argued that FinTech is the most important.

Synchronisation allows for high-speed and high frequency trading for be timestamped, to buyers’ and sellers’ satisfaction.

Transfers across continents and timelines are instantaneous within, as mentioned earlier, nanoseconds. And every transaction is recorded for immediate authentication. The wheels of commerce and now spinning very fast indeed.

And we owe this to Professor David Mills, the freewheeling zealot turned computer scientist. And did I mention was technically blind from birth?

R.I.P. David. We owe you one.

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