- Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945–2005
In Internet Alley, Paul Ceruzzi, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, explores the development of the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. In particular, Ceruzzi addresses the question of how the region achieved its peculiar dynamism when compared to the other suburban [End Page 1380] areas surrounding the District of Columbia. The author centers his account on the rise of the unincorporated Tysons Corner area of Fairfax County.
The author begins the account with a description of the area’s emergence from the Civil War, in which Tysons Corner served as the site of a Union signal tower, as an underdeveloped dairy-farming district whose main infrastructure was the financially precarious Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. Ceruzzi uses the tower and the railroad as metaphors for understanding the development of the area. The signal tower was succeeded in turn by a military microwave relay, which in turn was complemented by the facilities and organization providing much of the physical support for the Internet. The railroad, meanwhile, was paralleled and eventually supplanted first by streetcar lines enabling the growth of Washington suburbia across the Potomac, then by a series of highways innervating the axis linking the Pentagon and Dulles International Airport.
Using this framework, Ceruzzi describes the emergence of the Tysons Corner as a center of the research and development industry that grew out of the World War II mobilization of science and engineering talent coordinated by Vannevar Bush and the National Defense Research Council. Convenient to both the Pentagon and the eventual terminus of the Dulles Airport Access Road, Tysons Corner became a hub for a host of nonprofit, defense-oriented Federally Funded Research and Development Centers and their spin-offs: for-profit consultancies, systems engineering concerns, and computer-services companies. The accumulated expertise and infrastructure, in turn, enabled a further growth of Internet-related firms, funded by venture capital rather than the Federal government, along the corridor linking Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport. Ceruzzi is at some pains to show the role of state and local governments and real estate developers in the process of the area’s growth, as well as the policy imperatives driving the form of the region’s development, discussing the relative ease of development in Virginia, with its large unbuilt tracts and scattering of small, relatively poor towns. Suburban Maryland, in contrast, had been built up before World War II and postwar growth patterns – particularly the political desire to disperse critical facilities against the threat of nuclear attack – were harder to impose on existing, often richer and whiter, communities. Similarly, where the University of Maryland at College Park, provided a nexus of scientific and engineering talent, it also had its own institutional priorities; in contrast, the Commonwealth established George Mason University explicitly to serve the needs of new enterprises of Northern Virginia.
Internet Alley is a worthwhile book for anyone bemused by the southern approaches to Washington, D.C., potentially an enormous readership. The complexity of its subject, tangling military history, the histories of science and technology, public policy, geography, and urban studies, makes its main narrative occasionally difficult to follow, but ultimately rewarding. [End Page 1381]