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Marcie Stone remembers Larry Brandt, an internet visionary

Monday, January 9, 2017

Larry Brandt saw the potential to bring about today’s interconnected world before most people even heard of the word “internet.” Brandt, who was instrumental in the development of both web browsers and of the NSF’s Digital Government research program, died Aug. 1 at his home in Potomac, Maryland, due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 65.

Marcie Stone, now a member of the Information School’s MLIS Advisory Board and one of the school’s most fervent supporters, worked with Brandt in the mid-1990s and wanted to be sure that we didn’t get too far into 2017 without noting the loss in 2016 of such an important figure. She cited the words of one of his National Science Foundation colleagues: “If any one person can be said to be responsible for the development of web browsers in the United States and the advent of the digital government that we know today, it was (Brandt).”

Brandt joined the NSF in 1976 and managed its Supercomputing program in the early 1990s as the internet was blossoming. As an outgrowth of his involvement in these technologies, he persuaded the NSF to fund development of a National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) project at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, that led to the development of Mosaic, the browser first released in 1993 that has been credited with popularizing the World Wide Web.

As the internet grew and the web became a primary tool for information sharing, President Bill Clinton’s administration directed all of the agencies in the executive branch to create public-facing websites. To facilitate achieving this goal, Brandt formed the Federal Web Consortium, a coalition of executive branch agencies that worked with the NCSA to fund and direct research into increasingly sophisticated web applications. The agencies then used the products of the research to allow citizens to navigate the vast quantities of government information affecting their lives.

The technology was new and developing rapidly, and the coalition members “had the freedom to invent new approaches as we went along” said Stone, who worked with the coalition on behalf of the Defense Technical Information Center.  “It was the government equivalent of a garage start-up, only with more players on the ground.  As the effort matured and we needed guiding policies, our experience enabled us to develop documentation allowing the government to adopt a joint approach to utilizing these new technologies.”

“It was more fun than I’ve ever had at work before or since,” Stone said. “An incredibly exciting time, and immeasurably satisfying to see what may have seemed originally like outlandish ideas come to life. We were working on the edge of technology, and Larry was leading us very skillfully into brand new territory.”

Brandt led the NSF Digital Government Program as it created a community of computer and information science researchers around the world. As one colleague noted on Facebook after his death, he left an enormous legacy.

“Larry Brandt did more through his work at NSF to build digital government research, broadly defined, than anyone I have met during more than a quarter of a century,” Jane Fountain wrote. ”He was both a professional inspiration and a personal friend with a sharp sense of humor.”

Echoing these sentiments, Stone said “Larry was one of the brainiest, most generous, most articulate people I’ve ever known.  It was a privilege to work with him and that period was the absolute high point of my career.”