TechScape: Vint Cerf on how the internet was born

The man himself recollects...

"In the spring of 1972," Cerf recalled, "Bob and I got together to discuss our work. I said to Bob: 'I don't know how we're going to put these things together.'"

Nonetheless, having been involved in connecting the first "four nodes" which were computers at UCLA, SRI, UCSB (University of California at Santa Barbara) and the University of Utah, Cerf & Kahn were uniquely qualified to lead the long-term charge into the internet.

By September of 1973, Cerf and Kahn presented the "internet design" to a group of scientists at the University of Sussex and got universally positive feedback. Then the IEEE magazine, "Transactions on Communications" unveiled the TCP/IP development to the world and the rest, as they say, was history. What, I asked Cerf, was the greatest threat to what they were doing? "The greatest threat to the internet," Cerf cleared his throat, "was a new initiative called OSI which was a seven-layer architecture format that I didn't think would work." After which initiative, Cerf said agonizingly, rhetoric flew for ten years - ten long years of defending his baby. The entire technology community was embroiled in exhaustive debate about the OSI vs. TCP/IP issue and choice.

Finally, in order to resolve the impasse once and for all, Cerf stepped in. He sent a letter to the National Institute of Science & Technology (NIST) which motivated them to create a "blue-ribbon committee". Now these kinds of committees rarely resolve anything, but this one did by selecting TCP/IP over the inferior architecture.

Cerf continued, "By 1988, I was convinced it was time for the service to emerge as a public good and I started working on getting permission to open up the NSFNET and ARPANET to the carriage of commercial traffic. That started in limited forms in 1989 with the interconnection of MCI Mail to the internet." Cerf was a one-man lobbying machine pursuing the peaceful global invasion of his pet project.

"Then by 1992," he marched on with his narrative, "legislation was passed that permitted commercial traffic to flow on the NSFNET backbone." The Ethernet had already come out of Xerox PARC which was an important development. "Next came Tim Berners-Lee's creation of the Worldwide Web; Marc Andreessen and the Mosaic version of WWW at the University of Illinois; and finally, the Netscape Communications IPO … the internet became a public phenomenon."

How hard was this for Cerf? "Well, the problem of giving birth to something and getting it out is a real challenge," Cerf stated emphatically supporting the "father" and "birth" metaphors.

Could the early internet have ignited World War III had it satisfied the military as the new indestructible communications system? Would Cerf have felt like the "father of the atomic bomb" if his work had resulted in global war even one won by America?

Cerf said: "Ironically I met Oppenheimer when I was about 13 and visiting Stanford University. The internet was developed during the Cold War period and I saw it as an important contribution to our command and control capability. It was not the US policy then to launch pre-emptive strikes."

As we discussed this omnipresent worldwide communications system, he talked about myriad issues which were fun to hear. In a surprising statement he said, "You're running the 1978 version of the internet today." Maybe that's why my browser window keeps crashing, I wondered to myself.

For Cerf, the future is what it's all about. He was quoted as saying: "Our mission is to make MCI into a company that generates at least half of its income from products or services that don't even exist today," a quote which might be heard from lots of senior executives - none of whom could ever deliver an invention like Vinton G. Cerf. In closing Cerf bubbles enthusiastically: "The internet was conceived in 1973, born in 1983, and emerged to the public in 1993. VOIP got "real" in 2003. I can hardly wait for 2013..."

Bill Robinson has appeared on CNN, PBS, Bloomberg and had his own segment on SKY News commenting on high-tech and marketing issues and has written columns and articles for FORTUNE Small Business, The Financial Times, Marketing Magazine (UK),, The Moscow Times, Cisco Systems iQ Magazine, United Airline's Hemispheres Magazine and Upside Magazine. Bill may be reached at:


*Dr. Kleinrock has a fascinating biography and was a real progenitor of the internet as we know it today. On Kleinrock's homepage here, the following two anecdotes can be found:

About the day they first connected (1969): "On the day after the IMP arrived (the Tuesday after Labor Day), the circus began - everyone who had any imaginable excuse to be there, was there. Kleinrock and his team were there; BBN was there; Honeywell was there (the IMP was built out of a Honeywell minicomputer); Scientific Data Systems was there (the UCLA host machine was an SDS machine); AT&T long lines was there (we were attaching to their network); GTE was there (they were the local telephone company); ARPA was there; the UCLA Computer Science Dept. administration was there; the UCLA campus administration was there; plus an army of Computer Science graduate students was there. Expectations and anxieties were high because, everyone was concerned that their piece might fail. Fortunately, the team had done its job well and bits began moving between the UCLA computer and the IMP that same day. By the next day they had messages moving between the machines. THUS WAS BORN THE ARPANET, AND THE COMMUNITY WHICH HAS NOW BECOME THE INTERNET!"

About Kleinrock's "crashing of the network": "Indeed, under Kleinrock's supervision, UCLA served for many years as the ARPANET Measurement Center (in one interesting experiment in the mid-1970's, UCLA managed to control a geosynchronous satellite hovering over the Atlantic Ocean by sending messages through the ARPANET from California to an East Coast satellite dish). As head of the Center, it was Kleinrock's mission to stress the network to its limits and, if possible, expose its faults by 'crashing' the net; in those early days, Kleinrock could bring the net down at will, each time identifying and repairing a serious network fault. Some of the faults he uncovered were given descriptive names like Christmas Lockup and Piggyback Lockup. By mid-1970, ten nodes were connected, spanning the USA."

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