David Mills, the internet's Father Time, dies at 85

Creator of the Network Time Protocol that holds the internet together

Obituary Professor David L Mills, one of the original wizards who built the internet, has died at the age of 85, leaving a remarkable technological legacy.

He is perhaps best known for his work on NTP, the Network Time Protocol, which he both invented and first implemented. This technology, which addresses an exceptionally thorny technical problem, allows computers to synchronize their time clocks with one another. For this, he was often referred to as the internet's "Father Time."

Mills's daughter passed the sad news to Vint Cerf, who relayed it last week to the Internet History mailing list. Cerf is collecting a page of stories about Mills. In Poul-Henning Kamp's personal obituary – in Danish, but here's a Google Translate version – Kamp said:

If Vint Cerf was the "father of the internet," Dave Mills was its grandfather.

Mills was born with glaucoma, although an operation in childhood saved some sight in his left eye. Because of this, he always worked with large computer displays. His vision started to fail in 2012 and a decade later was altogether lost. Eric S Raymond, who started the NTPsec project, which aims to be a successor to Mills's implementation, credits the site's simplistic design to the accessibility requirements that were so important to Professor Mills. We wish more people did the same.

As a child, Mills went to a school for the visually impaired in San Mateo by steam train, which led in his teens to a hobby in model railroads, as well as amateur radio; his callsign was W3HCF – as in Halt and Catch Fire. In 11th grade, a teacher told him, "You're never going to get to college," which he said was "like waving a flag in front of a bull." He graduated from the University of Michigan with a PhD in Computer and Communications Science in 1971, then taught for two years in Edinburgh. He then moved his family back to the US to teach at the University of Maryland. After five years, he was denied tenure – he called this "the best thing that ever happened to me" – and went to work in industry.

He went on to become one of the engineers who built the internet. Later in life, he was the first chair of the Gateway Algorithms and Data Structures Task Force (GADS), and then of the Internet Architecture Task Force (INARC), the forerunner organization of today's Internet Engineering Task Force.

Of her father, Leigh said:

Dad was a stickler for the proper use of the language (even if it was in Millspeak!)

The latter refers to his fondness for wordplay, such as his invented terms for reliable and unreliable time servers – truechimers and falsetickers.

On the personal section of his homepage, Mills said:

It is an open secret among my correspondents that I on occasion do twitch the English language in mail messages and published works. Paper referees have come to agreement on what they call millsspeak to refer to the subtilities [sic] with which I personalize my work. If you read my papers or my mail, you know my resonances. If not, you can calibrate my naughtimeter from children's books, outhouse walls, and old English slang.

Among other technical achievements, Mills wrote possibly the first ever client for the newly invented FTP protocol, as well as the software that turned DEC PDP-11s into Fuzzball routers [PDF], which interconnected the NSFNET, a forerunner of the internet. Although Mills did not write the ping tool, according to its author, he did inspire it, and also coined its splendid backronym: "Packet InterNet Groper".

In 1986, Mills became a professor at the University of Delaware, and since his retirement in 2008, professor emeritus. He wrote 28 RFCs, notably the NTP proposal and versions 1, 2, 3, and 4, as well as two Internet Standards. He was elected a Fellow of the ACM in 1999, of the IEEE in 2002, the National Academy of Engineering in 2008, as well as the winning the PTTI Distinguished Service Award in 2006, and the IEEE Internet Award [PDF] in 2013. His university homepage has impressive lists of awards, memberships, publications, and more, as well as a whimsical assortment of illustrations from Walt Kelly's Pogo, The Wizard of Oz, and other sources. Despite his achievements, he was not a man who took life too seriously.

Mills was the subject of a New Yorker profile titled "The Thorny Problem of Keeping the Internet's Time," which we highly recommend, as we do his 2005 lecture "A Maze of Twisty, Turny Passages – Routing in the Internet Swamp." The name of this is a nod to the seminal computer game Zork, which his daughter recalls him helping his children to play:

Keith and I were curious as to what he did with all the time spent in his den … He taught us how to pick up the phone, call that server, then put the receiver into a coupler which was sitting next to the phone. This was connected to a line printer at first, then later to a green-screen terminal. Once we had a command prompt, we would start up Zork. If it was after 5pm west coast time, we would get "You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here." If it was before 5PM, a knight in black armor would come out of the woods and chop your head off with a big sword.

David Lennox Mills, born June 3, 1938, Oakland, California; died January 17, 2024, Newark, Delaware. ®

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