50 Years of DARPA: 5 Good Inventions, 5 Lousy Ones

To commemorate the golden jubilee of America's Defense Advance Research Projects Agency—formed these 50 years ago in response to a little traveler called Sputnik—New Scientist has come up with a short list of 10 DARPA inventions: five that changed the world, and five that fell flat:

Five Big Wins

The internet - You know, ARPANET, or a communications network that heals thyself. The whole porn-music-movie triangle trade was not in the original blueprint.

GPS - The idea that satellites up there could tell us where we are down here is as old as Sputnik, and DARPA had an attempt or two before getting it right with GPS. Again, not originally purposed for civilians and their "points of interest"—more about targeting ballistic warheads, but you know, potato, po-tah-to.

Speech translation - Soldiers in Iraq use handheld machine translators to aid in communication with some degree of success, meaning it's only a matter of time before some German tourists ask you to speak into the microphone.

Stealth planes - Stealth airplane technology was so sneaky it even snuck up on Air Force top brass, who were apparently shocked to learn about the prototype for the original F-117.

Gallium arsenide - Yep, some DARPA egghead discovered you can do more with arsenic than poison KGB triple-agents. It's now found in all kinds of everyday electronics. That may not last, though, because environmentally speaking it's still some pretty nasty stuff.

Five That Didn't Quite Make It

Hafnium bombs - DARPA put $7 million into researching a bomb with massive initial devastation but no radioactive fallout, but alas, it didn't ever work. Apparently if you want the good, you gotta take the bad.

The mechanical elephant - Hannibal would have been proud of this one: During the Vietnam War, some dudes at DARPA wanted to take terrain-friendly robot elephants into the jungle. Even DARPA's director was embarrassed.

Telepathic spies - People who claimed psychic powers were on the receiving end of a lot of government funding in the 1970s. Even though the project was a failure, getting rich by pretending to be psychic does seem to suggest a kind of sixth sense.

FutureMap - Apparently a bunch of Dick Cheney's friends betting on terror targets was considered grotesque by some people. I've still got $30K riding on Dubuque.

Project Orion - This is a nerd favorite: it's the spaceship powered by atomic-bomb turds. I think everyone was sad to see that one go.

Check out the New Scientist story for the real deal behind these 10 projects, and a look at some crazy projects that might make the list in the next 50 years. [New Scientist]