The Washingtonian

Reasons to Love Washington (D.C.): We're Inventing the Future

This opinion is featured in a multi-part series exploring "26 Reasons to Love Washington," published in the May 2009 issue of Washingtonian.

In science fiction, military research takes place in super-secret labs or mysterious desert locations. The Sci Fi Channel even has a TV series about a quirky town called Eureka commissioned by the President so scientists could live and work in secret. The show’s slogan: “Every small town has its secrets, but in the town of Eureka the secrets are top-secret.”

In the real world, there is no Eureka. Or rather, eureka—we’ve found it! It’s the Washington area. We just don’t often notice that the future is being created around us.

Take that office building down the street from Ballston Common mall. It may look ordinary, but it’s the headquarters of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency that in the last 50 years has shaped the world we live in more than any other organization.

The agency was started in 1958 after the Soviets embarrassed the United States by launching the Sputnik satellite. President Eisenhower worried that America was losing the science arms race and established DARPA so that we’d never again be surprised by the technology of foreign powers.

DARPA’s mission is to accelerate technologies so the US military can use them in war sooner. For all the claims that big government can never innovate like the private sector, DARPA is the rebuttal. The Internet (DARPA’s name for it was the “intergalactic computer network”), e-mail, cell phones, computer graphics, weather satellites, lasers, night vision, and the Saturn V rockets that first took man to the moon all grew out of DARPA’s work. Now the agency is focusing on making the robots of science fiction come to life.

It’s also spurring the local economy in other ways. A few blocks from DARPA headquarters, there’s a popular barber shop that specializes in 1950s buzzcuts. Yet its hairdressers do offer five-minute rubs of the patron’s skull and neck afterward, and so the place is often filled with men wearing government badges who may work on robots but still long for a human touch.

Such game-changing institutions are all over Washington. A baseball’s throw from DARPA is the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The ONR traces its roots to 1907, when a naval commander noticed flaws in the design and construction of the battleship USS North Dakota, which the Navy had overlooked because it lacked its own scientists and engineers. ONR focuses on helping the Navy maintain technological superiority on, under, and above the sea. It has led the development of fiber optics, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, tilt-rotor aircraft, and deep-sea exploration. It has even made breakthroughs in the battle against tooth decay.

So the next time you’re out walking, take a second glance at that building with the nerdy-looking office workers coming out of it. It might be the home of an idea that will revolutionize your world.