Donald Watts Davies

Born(1924-06-07)7 June 1924
Died28 May 2000(2000-05-28) (aged 75)
Esher, Surrey, England
Alma materImperial College
Known forPacket switching
AwardsCBE, FRS
Distinguished Fellow, BCS
Scientific career
FieldsComputer science
InstitutionsNational Physical Laboratory

Donald Watts Davies, CBE FRS (7 June 1924 – 28 May 2000) was a Welsh computer scientist who was employed at the UK National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

In 1965 he conceived of packet switching, which is today the dominant basis for data communications in computer networks worldwide. Davies proposed a commercial national data network in the United Kingdom and designed and built the local-area NPL network to demonstrate the technology. Many of the wide-area packet-switched networks built in the 1970s were similar "in nearly all respects" to his original 1965 design. The ARPANET project credited Davies for his influence, which was key to the development of the Internet.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

Davies' work was independent of the work of Paul Baran in the United States who had a similar idea in the early 1960s, and who also provided input to the ARPANET project, after his work was highlighted by Davies' team.

Early life

Davies was born in Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley, Wales. His father, a clerk at a coalmine, died a few months later, and his mother took Donald and his twin sister back to her home town of Portsmouth, where he went to school.[8] He attended the Southern Grammar School for Boys.

He received a BSc degree in physics (1943) at Imperial College London, and then joined the war effort working as an assistant to Klaus Fuchs[8] on the nuclear weapons Tube Alloys project at Birmingham University.[9] He then returned to Imperial taking a first class degree in mathematics (1947); he was also awarded the Lubbock memorial Prize as the outstanding mathematician of his year.

In 1955, he married Diane Burton; they had a daughter and two sons.[10]

Career history

National Physical Laboratory

From 1947, he worked at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) where Alan Turing was designing the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) computer. It is said that Davies spotted mistakes in Turing's seminal 1936 paper On Computable Numbers, much to Turing's annoyance. These were perhaps some of the first "programming" bugs in existence, even if they were for a theoretical computer, the universal Turing machine. The ACE project was overambitious and floundered, leading to Turing's departure.[9] Davies took over the project and concentrated on delivering the less ambitious Pilot ACE computer, which first worked in May 1950. A commercial spin-off, DEUCE was manufactured by English Electric Computers and became one of the best-selling machines of the 1950s.[9]

Davies also worked on applications of traffic simulation and machine translation. In the early 1960s, he worked on government technology initiatives designed to stimulate the British computer industry.

Packet switching

Further information: NPL network

In 1965, Davies developed the idea of packet switching, dividing computer messages into packets that are routed independently across a network, possibly via differing routes, and are reassembled at the destination.

Davies used the word "packets" after consulting with a linguist because it was capable of being translated into languages other than English without compromise.[11] Davies' key insight came in the realisation that computer network traffic was inherently "bursty" with periods of silence, compared with relatively constant telephone traffic.[12] He designed and proposed a commercial national data network based on packet switching in his 1966 Proposal for the Development of a National Communications Service for On-line Data Processing.[13]

In 1966 he returned to the NPL at Teddington just outside London, where he headed and transformed its computing activity. He became interested in data communications following a visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he saw that a significant problem with the new time-sharing computer systems was the cost of keeping a phone connection open for each user.[9] Davies was the first to describe the concept of an "Interface computer", in 1966, today known as a router.[14][15] He and his team were one of the first to use the term 'protocol' in a data-commutation context in 1967.[16] The NPL team also carried out simulation work on packet networks, including datagram networks.[17][18]

His work on packet switching, presented by his colleague Roger Scantlebury, initially caught the attention of the developers of ARPANET, a US defence network, at the Symposium on Operating Systems Principles in October 1967.[19] In Scantlebury's report following the conference, he noted "It would appear that the ideas in the NPL paper at the moment are more advanced than any proposed in the USA".[20][21] Larry Roberts of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the United States applied Davies' concepts of packet switching in the late 1960s for the ARPANET, which went on to become a predecessor to the Internet.[9][22][6] These early years of computer resource sharing were documented in the 1972 film Computer Networks: The Heralds of Resource Sharing.

Davies first presented his own ideas on packet switching at a conference in Edinburgh on 5 August 1968.[23] At NPL Davies directed the development of a local-area packet-switched network, the Mark I NPL network. It was replaced with the Mark II in 1973, and remained in operation until 1986, influencing other research in the UK and Europe, including Louis Pouzin's CYCLADES project in France.[24][25]

Unbeknown to him, Paul Baran of the RAND Corporation in the United States was also working on a similar concept; when Baran became aware of Davies's work he acknowledged that they both had equally discovered the concept.[26][27][28] Baran was happy to acknowledge that Davies had come up with the same idea as him independently. In an e-mail to Davies, he wrote

You and I share a common view of what packet switching is all about, since you and I independently came up with the same ingredients.[26]

Leonard Kleinrock, a contemporary working on analysing message flow using queueing theory, developed a theoretical basis for the operation of message switching networks in his PhD thesis during 1961-2, published as a book in 1964.[29] However, Kleinrock's later claim to have developed the theoretical basis of packet switching networks is disputed by other Internet pioneers,[30][31][32] including by Robert Taylor,[33] Baran[34] and Davies.[35][36] Davies and Baran are recognized by historians and the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame for independently inventing the concept of digital packet switching used in modern computer networking including the Internet.[37][38]


Davies, along with his deputy Derek Barber and Roger Scantlebury, conducted research into protocols for internetworking. They participated in the International Networking Working Group from 1972, initially chaired by Vint Cerf and later Derek Barber.[39][40] Davies and Scantlebury were acknowledged by Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf in their 1974 paper on internetworking, "A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication".[36][41]

Davies and Barber published "Communication networks for computers" in 1973.[42] They spoke at the Data Communications Symposium in 1975 about the "battle for access standards" between datagrams and virtual circuits, with Barber saying the "lack of standard access interfaces for emerging public packet-switched communication networks is creating 'some kind of monster' for users".[43] For a long period of time, the network engineering community was polarized over the implementation of competing protocol suites, a debate commonly called the 'Protocol Wars'. It was unclear which type of protocol would result in the best and most robust computer networks.[44] Internetworking experiments at NPL under Davies included connecting with the European Informatics Network by translating between two different host protocols and connecting with the Post Office Experimental Packet Switched Service using a common host protocol in both networks. Their research confirmed establishing a common host protocol would be more reliable and efficient than translating between different host protocols using a gateway.[45] Davies and Barber published "Computer networks and their protocols" in 1979.[46]

Computer network security

Davies relinquished his management responsibilities in 1979 to return to research. He became particularly interested in computer network security. Together with David O. Clayden, he designed the Message Authenticator Algorithm (MAA) in 1983, one of the first message authentication code algorithms to gain widespread acceptance. It was adopted as international standard ISO 8731-2 in 1987.

He retired from NPL in 1984, becoming a leading consultant on data security to the banking industry and publishing a book on the topic that year.[9]

Later career

In 1987, Davies became a visiting professor at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College.[6]

Awards and honours

Davies was appointed a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society (BCS) in 1975 and was made a CBE in 1983, and later a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1987.[2][9]

He received the John Player Award from the BCS in 1974.[47] and was awarded a medal by the John von Neumann Computer Society in Hungary in 1985.[48]

In 2000, Davies shared the inaugural IEEE Internet Award.[7] In 2007, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame,[49] and in 2012 Davies was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society.[50]

NPL sponsors a gallery, opened in 2009, about the development of packet switching and "Technology of the Internet" at The National Museum of Computing.[51]

A blue plaque commemorating Davies was unveiled in Treorchy in July 2013.[52]


Davies was survived by his wife Diane, a daughter and two sons.[53]

See also



  1. ^ Needham, R. M. (2002). "Donald Watts Davies, C.B.E. 7 June 1924 – 28 May 2000". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 48: 87–96. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2002.0006. S2CID 72835589. The 1967 Gatlinburg paper was influential on the development of ARPAnet, which might otherwise have been built with less extensible technology.
  2. ^ a b "Computer Pioneers - Donald W. Davies". IEEE Computer Society. Retrieved 20 February 2020. The design of the ARPA network (ArpaNet) was entirely changed to adopt this technique.
  3. ^ Roberts, Dr. Lawrence G. (November 1978). "The Evolution of Packet Switching" (PDF). IEEE Invited Paper. Retrieved 10 September 2017. In nearly all respects, Davies' original proposal, developed in late 1965, was similar to the actual networks being built today.
  4. ^ "Pioneer: Donald Davies", Internet Hall of Fame "America’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), and the ARPANET received his network design enthusiastically and the NPL local network became the first two computer networks in the world using the technique."
  5. ^ Berners-Lee, Tim (1999), Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web by its Inventor, London: Orion, p. 7, ISBN 0-75282-090-7 "The advances by Donald Davies, by Paul Baran, and by Vint Cerf, Bob Khan and colleagues had already happened in the 1970s but were only just becoming pervasive."
  6. ^ a b c Feder, Barnaby J. (4 June 2000). "Donald W. Davies, 75, Dies; Helped Refine Data Networks". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 10 January 2020. Donald W. Davies, who proposed a method for transmitting data that made the Internet possible
  7. ^ a b Harris, Trevor, Who is the Father of the Internet? The case for Donald Watts Davies, retrieved 10 July 2013
  8. ^ a b The History of Computing Project – Donald Davies Biography
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Cambell-Kelly, Martin (Autumn 2008). "Pioneer Profiles: Donald Davies". Computer Resurrection (44). ISSN 0958-7403.
  10. ^ "Donald Davies Obituary", The Guardian, 2 June 2000
  11. ^ Harris, p. 6
  12. ^ Dettmer, R. (16 July 1998). "Almost an Accident". IEE Review. 44 (4): 169–172. doi:10.1049/ir:19980411. ISSN 0953-5683.
  13. ^ Davies, D. W. (1966), Proposal for a Digital Communication Network (PDF), National Physical Laboratory
  14. ^ Roberts, Dr. Lawrence G. (May 1995). "The ARPANET & Computer Networks". Archived from the original on 24 March 2016. Retrieved 13 April 2016. Then in June 1966, Davies wrote a second internal paper, "Proposal for a Digital Communication Network" In which he coined the word packet,- a small sub part of the message the user wants to send, and also introduced the concept of an "Interface computer" to sit between the user equipment and the packet network.
  15. ^ Pelkey, James (2007). Entrepreneurial Capitalism & Innovation: A History of Computer Communications 1968 - 1988. Retrieved 18 February 2020. paper dated June 1966 ... introduced the concept of an "interface computer" to sit between the user equipment and the packet network.
  16. ^ Naughton, John (24 September 2015). A Brief History of the Future. Orion. ISBN 978-1-4746-0277-8.
  17. ^ C. Hempstead; W. Worthington (2005). Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Technology. Routledge. ISBN 9781135455514.
  18. ^ Pelkey, James. "6.3 CYCLADES Network and Louis Pouzin 1971-1972". Entrepreneurial Capitalism and Innovation: A History of Computer Communications 1968-1988.
  19. ^ Isaacson, Walter (2014). The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon & Schuster. p. 237. ISBN 9781476708690.
  20. ^ J. Gillies, R. Cailliau (2000). How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web. Oxford University Press. pp. 23–25. ISBN 0192862073.
  21. ^ "Oral-History:Donald Davies & Derek Barber". Retrieved 13 April 2016.
  22. ^ Abbate, Jane (2000). Inventing the Internet. MIT Press. p. 38. ISBN 0262261332.
  23. ^ Luke Collins, "Network pioneer remembered", Engineering & Technology, IET, 6 September 2008
  24. ^ Packet Switching
  25. ^ C. Hempstead; W. Worthington (2005). Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Technology. Routledge. ISBN 9781135455514.
  26. ^ a b Harris, p. 9
  27. ^ "Packets of data were the key...". NPL. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  28. ^ "Donald Watts Davies". Internet Guide. 2010.
  29. ^ Kleinrock, Leonard (1961), "Information flow in large communication nets", RLE Quarterly Progress Report (1)
  30. ^ Alex McKenzie (2009), Comments on Dr. Leonard Kleinrock's claim to be "the Father of Modern Data Networking", retrieved 23 April 2015 "...there is nothing in the entire 1964 book that suggests, analyzes, or alludes to the idea of packetization."
  31. ^ Isaacson, Walter (2014). The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon & Schuster. p. 245. ISBN 9781476708690. This led to an outcry among many of the other Internet pioneers, who publicly attacked Kleinrock and said that his brief mention of breaking messages into smaller pieces did not come close to being a proposal for packet switching
  32. ^ Harris
  33. ^ "Birthing the Internet: Letters From the Delivery Room; Disputing a Claim". New York Times. 22 November 2001. Retrieved 10 September 2017. Authors who have interviewed dozens of Arpanet pioneers know very well that the Kleinrock-Roberts claims are not believed.
  34. ^ Katie Hefner (8 November 2001), "A Paternity Dispute Divides Net Pioneers", The New York Times, The Internet is really the work of a thousand people," Mr. Baran said. "And of all the stories about what different people have done, all the pieces fit together. It's just this one little case that seems to be an aberration.
  35. ^ Donald Davies (2001), "A Historical Study of the Beginnings of Packet Switching", Computer Journal, British Computer Society, I can find no evidence that he understood the principles of packet switching.[dead link]
  36. ^ a b Scantlebury, Roger (25 June 2013). "Internet pioneers airbrushed from history". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  37. ^ "The real story of how the Internet became so vulnerable". Washington Post. Retrieved 18 February 2020. Historians credit seminal insights to Welsh scientist Donald W. Davies and American engineer Paul Baran
  38. ^ "Inductee Details - Paul Baran". National Inventors Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 6 September 2017. Retrieved 6 September 2017; "Inductee Details - Donald Watts Davies". National Inventors Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 6 September 2017. Retrieved 6 September 2017.
  39. ^ Andrew L. Russell (30 July 2013). "OSI: The Internet That Wasn't". IEEE Spectrum. Vol. 50, no. 8.
  40. ^ McKenzie, Alexander (2011). "INWG and the Conception of the Internet: An Eyewitness Account". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 33 (1): 66–71. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2011.9. ISSN 1934-1547. S2CID 206443072. Perhaps the only historical difference that would have occurred if DARPA had switched to the INWG 96 protocol is that rather than Cerf and Kahn being routinely cited as "fathers of the Internet," maybe Cerf, Scantlebury, Zimmermann, and I would have been.
  41. ^ Cerf, V.; Kahn, R. (1974). "A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication" (PDF). IEEE Transactions on Communications. 22 (5): 637–648. doi:10.1109/TCOM.1974.1092259. ISSN 1558-0857. The authors wish to thank a number of colleagues for helpful comments during early discussions of international network protocols, especially R. Metcalfe, R. Scantlebury, D. Walden, and H. Zimmerman; D. Davies and L. Pouzin who constructively commented on the fragmentation and accounting issues; and S. Crocker who commented on the creation and destruction of associations.
  42. ^ Davies, Donald Watts; Barber, Derek L. A. (1973), Communication networks for computers, Computing and Information Processing, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 9780471198741
  43. ^ Frank, Ronald A. (22 October 1975). "Battle for Access Standards Has Two Sides". Computerworld. IDG Enterprise: 17–18.
  44. ^ Davies, Howard; Bressan, Beatrice (26 April 2010). A History of International Research Networking: The People who Made it Happen. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-3-527-32710-2.
  45. ^ Abbate, Janet (2000). Inventing the Internet. MIT Press. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-262-51115-5.
  46. ^ Davies, Donald Watts (1979). Computer networks and their protocols. Internet Archive. Chichester, [Eng.] ; New York : Wiley. pp. 456–477. ISBN 9780471997504.
  47. ^ "Donald Davies". Retrieved 9 February 2020.
  48. ^ "Award - 1985 - Neumann-plakett és -oklevél - Donald W. Davies | Neumann János Számítógép-tudományi Társaság". (in Hungarian). Retrieved 10 April 2020.
  49. ^ "Inductee Details - Donald Watts Davies". National Inventors Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 6 September 2017. Retrieved 6 September 2017.
  50. ^ "Donald Davies | Internet Hall of Fame". Retrieved 9 February 2020.
  51. ^ "Technology of the Internet". The National Museum of Computing. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  52. ^ Emily Gorton (26 July 2013). "Blue plaque to honour Welsh computing pioneer Donald Davies". The Independent. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  53. ^ "Obituary: Data Pioneer Donald Davies Dies". Internet Society (ISOC). 31 May 2000. Archived from the original on 20 September 2010.