Business Superhero: Donald Davies

4 Aug 2016

If you don’t recognise the name, I’m not terribly surprised. Donald Davies is one of those people who worked to develop the foundations of our modern technical world who has seemingly been forgotten by mainstream history. And I can understand why, his big contribution to the world, being involved with the practical implementation of “packet switching” is more than a little technically complicated. Saying that, without this work, our modern technical world simply wouldn’t exist.

I was recently watching a BBC documentary called “The Joy of Data”…I know, it’s almost like I can’t actually escape, or maybe I don’t want to…anyway, this programme was exploring how we came to start using and relying on data and how this reliance is one of the foundations of our modern world.

And without the work that Donald Davis put into packet switching, these foundations would be far less reliable.

In a short explanation, packet switching is the idea that when data is sent, it can be broken up and sent in smaller “packets” before being reassembled on the receiving end. If it were sent all at once, it would take far longer. If you want to understand it more fully (and Davis’ role in it I recommend starting at that font of knowledge, the Wikipedia article). Donald Davis (almost simultaneously with Paul Baran) came up with this idea and a way to implement it.

It may sound like a minor technical invention, but without packet switching, sending large amounts of data like video streaming or cloud computing, would be impractical to the point of impossible. When you coming this “minor” technical innovation with other, similar inventions, you are able to build a highly complex and sophisticated digital world.

I do understand why people might shy away from this kind of “technical” history, but when we forget that our modern world is built on the culmination of these kinds of “minor” inventions.

By forgetting people like Donald Davis, these inventions start feeling like magic and not like the incredibly awe-inspiring products of a relatable and very real person. It stops the technical world feeling like it is within our grasp, putting a stop to our aspirations of adding to it.

And that’s why Donald Davis is our August Business Superhero.