Meet The Man Who Created the Internet

National Medal Laureate Vint Cerf, along with Robert Kahn, developed the protocols that paved the way for the creation of the Internet.

Many of us alive today cannot remember what life was like before the Internet existed. Now, the high-speed network of connections plays an integral part in day-to-day life.

But just a few decades ago, Vint Cerf and his colleagues set out to design the protocols that are at the heart of the Internet of today. In 1973 while working as a professor at Stanford University, Cerf and Robert Kahn began the design of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP) that allow data to flow between computers. Those protocols laid the foundation for the Internet, and earned Cerf and Kahn the title of “fathers of the Internet.”

Though the development of those protocols took just six months, according to Cerf, his interest in computer science and technology started at a much younger age.

By the time Cerf was 10, he says he was already interested in science and mathematics, and spent time experimenting with a chemistry set he received as a boy. From that point on, he says, “I was very persuaded that I would end up doing something scientific.”

Although he majored in mathematics as an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Cerf says he took as many computer science classes as possible, because when he was in high school, he was able to use a computer with his friend Steve Crocker, sparking his interest in computer programming.

“I realized maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a mathematician,” Cerf says of his time at Stanford.

After a two-year stint at IBM, Cerf went back to school at UCLA for a master’s degree and a Ph.D. It was during his time at UCLA studying under his mentor Gerald Estrin, that Cerf first met Robert Kahn. Together, the two would create the building blocks for the Internet. It was also then that Cerf was drawn into the ARPANet project, the government predecessor to the Internet.

“That pretty much set the course of my career from then on,” Cerf says.

When Cerf returned to Stanford as a professor, he reconnected with Kahn in 1973 when he approached Cerf with a problem he was attempting to work through at ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency). Kahn was working on a project to make sure computers, whether made by the same or different manufacturers, could communicate with each other in command and control. The twist was that the computers would be in mobile vehicles, in ships at sea, or in aircraft.

“You couldn’t use telephone wires to connect them together, which is how the ARPANet was built,” Cerf says. “This was a fairly daring and advanced idea because most of the computers could speak to each other if they were the same brand. We developed a set of standard protocols that would allow this heterogeneous collection of computers to speak to each other through the ARPANet.”

The Arpanet team - Dr. Cerf is sitting in the middle on the bottom row.

Together, the two solved the problem in a mere six months and wrote a paper on the solutions.

For their contributions to the creation of the Internet, Cerf and Kahn were recognized numerous times, in addition to receiving the National Medal of Technology. In 2005, then-President George W. Bush bestowed the two with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States.

When presenting the award, Bush said Cerf and Kahn “are brilliant men who found great success in their chosen field and have played an extraordinary role in the story of our time.”

“By developing a common digital language for computers across networks, these two men prepared the way for a technological revolution,” Bush said. “The Internet is one of the greatest innovations ever launched, and even now has vast potential as a force for great good. And it's source of pride to all of us -- it is a source of pride to all of us that this progress was set in motion by two talented Americans. Our economy, our lives, and our world have all been enriched by the imagination and the efforts of Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf.”

Cerf’s work did not end with the development of the TCP/IP protocols, however. He left Stanford in 1976 to continue his work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the Department of Defense, where he remained until 1982. During that time, there was a growing interest in the potential capabilities of the Internet, and Cerf realized that there was a potential to commercialize the Internet.  

Elizabeth Feinler, who managed the first ARPANet and worked with Cerf at the Department of Defense, said that even back then Cerf had a way of bridging gaps between different groups or ideas, and ultimately advancing the development of the Internet.

“[Cerf] was just the essence of the Internet,” Feinler says. “He’s very calm, and doesn’t lose his cool too often. He was just the right person to go to all the government agencies … and explain to them that this was a very useful protocol set, and to carry that on into the commercial world.”

Feinler describes Cerf as being “on the front lines of the Internet wars,” the long road in bringing the Internet to the public at large. Up until 1982, DARPA had just been doing test implementations, Cerf says.

“Most of the things that were built on the Internet were built, tested, tried, and had a lot of people kicking the tire,” Feinler says of Cerf’s leadership. “That way of doing business was what really built the Internet. It was very proactive. It didn’t matter – you could have a kid hacker or Nobel Prize winner giving the idea, as long as it was a good idea. That working group approach to things that [Cerf and Crocker] fostered was very instrumental in making the Internet as successful as it was.”

Vint with his wife Sigrid at the National Medals Celebration in 2016

But by the end of 1981, Cerf says, “it was clear that we were ready to test this on a bigger scale.”

He then informed everyone who was part of the ARPANet programs that they would have to switch to use TCP/IP by 1983. By that time, most participants had switched over, with about 400 machines involved, and ARPANet was split into two groups: MILNET for the Defense Department, and the remaining ARPANet that was used for research. Around that same time, the National Science Foundation became interested in using the protocols to support communications among research communities, Cerf says. Their network linked computer science research departments at various universities around the country.

The success of that network persuaded the NSF to build a larger-scale backbone, NSFNet, with the intent of connecting roughly 3,000 research universities in the United States. Around the same time, NASA and the Department of Energy also began implementing their own networks.

“The only people with access were military and the research community,” Cerf says. “But in 1988, I realized the only way this will ever get into the hands of the general public is if we are able to break the appropriate use limitations on the government-sponsored backbones, and carry commercial traffic on those backbones.” Doing so, he says, would demonstrate to the private sector that there is a market for Internet capability that they could sell.

Cerf got permission to connect the MCI Mail system, which he built for MCI in the early 1980s, to the Internet.

“As soon as I got that up and running in the summer of 1989, all the other commercial email companies … said, ‘Wait a minute. We want access to this too!’” Cerf said. “Soon these independent and formerly disconnected email systems were suddenly interworking with each other through the public Internet.”

Over the next three years, Cerf says they were helped by then-Sen. Al Gore, who “helped us go from the research Internet to the commercial Internet.”

With the way things have advanced and grown over the years, one might think Cerf was surprised by the rise of the Internet, and whether he anticipated what it might become.

“A good answer might be ‘no,’” he says. “But that wouldn’t be true. Bob Kahn and I actually saw huge potential in this kind of technology and this idea. We were thinking global at the time we did the design.”

Moving forward, Cerf says he believes the Internet will continue to be an integral part of everyday life, as well as traditional education.

“We are headed into a world in which software is everywhere, embedded in everything,” he says. “We need our young people to have an appreciation and awareness of the power and perils of widespread software operating, many cases, autonomously. They must know what is needed to use the Internet more safely, and to anticipate that bugs will cause some software not to work as intended.”

Vint will be speaking at the NSTMF’s An Evening With event at Georgetown University on March 27th. You can view video of this event here.