TechScape: Vint Cerf on how the internet was born

The man himself recollects...


Interview The Register will be publishing three TechScape exclusive interviews with Vint Cerf over the next few weeks. In this first interview, we examine Cerf's story as one of the undisputed originators of the internet.

Currently SVP of Technology Strategy for MCI, based in Virginia, Cerf spent some time talking with me from JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) in Pasadena, California. Of course his day job involves helping MCI figure out how to maximize revenue and obtain new customers, partners and develop new channels. But the reason he was at JPL is because of his revolutionary work on setting up the InterPlaNet communications/data system which he's involved JPL, NASA and numerous other organizations in sending IP infrastructure to Mars on the recent landings there. This will be the subject of our second interview with Cerf.

The man has always been pretty unassuming about claiming the credit and very liberal with the credit to others such as Bob Kahn. This leads me to believe that more of the credit is due than is normally attributed to him.

Here's how Cerf tells the story:

"The simple story is that the US Department of Defense (DOD) started to explore the use of computers in what they called ‘command & control' which was really about multiple computers and how to connect them," Cerf began. The obvious intention was to develop an integrated military communications system which would represent a distinct battlefield or even strategic missile delivery advantage for America.

So the DOD's initial problem was how to connect its far-flung assets? "DOD said we needed to put these computers and connect them on tanks, APV's and ships," Cerf pointed out. Remember this was 1970 and the height of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union; Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and committed to spreading Communism as far and wide as possible; while America was trying to prevent the "domino effect" spread of this enslaving ideology in Vietnam (a war they lost in the near-term but eventually won with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991).

The USA wanted to find the technologies which would give them the edge, any edge, against the Soviets and went to the universities and research facilities to find that edge.

Who could've predicted that one of the technologies would be a worldwide communications system which would change the business models, offer new uncharted territories for distribution, sales, procurement, research, health, travel, community, law, education and so on? Who would've known that there would be no immediate military application but a larger more important invention with an incredible utilization around the corner?

Not Cerf certainly.

"We had no idea that this would turn into a global and public infrastructure," he observed categorically. "In the earliest days, this was a project I worked on with great passion because I wanted to solve the Defense Department's problem: it did not want proprietary networking and it didn't want to be confined to a single network technology. As the system expanded into academic space, it was increasingly useful and I hoped it could be made available much more widely."

Good thing too, imagine if the DOD had successfully stifled it or insisted on its being classified; the world would still be writing letters and waiting around for "snail mail." (Although with the technology stress of e-mail in-boxes, spam and viruses perhaps would we all be better off?)

In the mid-1960s, the US government created ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) a "skunk works" R&D operation in part as response to Sputnik.

Cerf knew Bob Kahn from some work at UCLA and together they created the TCIP/IP protocol which became the backbone platform for the Internet. I make it sound easy; it was anything but.

They had heard about Donald Davies (over here across "the pond") at the National Physical Labs and his work on and references to "packet switching." Then armed with Davies' concept, Cerf and Kahn encountered another set of important research from Leonard Kleinrock and Paul Baran who was working at Rand at the time. Kleinrock & Barron had written a paper called "On Distributed Communication" which set the Cerf/Kahn minds in motion about what Cerf termed "voice-communications in packet mode." (Cerf observes here that "for all purposes, it was VOIP.")

Larry Roberts and Bob Taylor from ARPA contributed the basic idea of ARPANET, according to Cerf who is quick to point out he was "just a grad student at that time responsible for software" and shouldn't be given much credit at all until the time came for the first internet concepts and of course, TCP/IP.

Kleinrock*, Taylor, Roberts and Davies as some of the world's top scientists, computer experts and electrical engineers had all been involved in one way or another at one time with ARPA. Kahn had also been at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a Cambridge, US-based computer company which won the government contract to build the ARPANET, forerunner to our internet today.

But the internet was not the internet just yet...

Next page: Footnote

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