Vint Cerf – The Father of The Internet

Often called the “Father of the Internet,” Vinton (Vint) Cerf was one of the early pioneers of inter working computer programs. However, he doesn’t really consider himself the father. “That’s not quite right,” Cerf says of the title, “I was part of a team working with Bob Kahn on the ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet.” Kahn actually started a program called Interneting, and then went looking for someone to help build it. Kahn and Cerf developed the first papers in 1973 describing how the system of interworking could function and presented it at an International Network Working Group; they later refined the system in 1974. Cerf said that Kahn definitely deserves equal credit. “What has happened.” said Cerf. “is that I have stayed more focused within the Internet and Bob has gone on to do other things. This culture we live in needs heroes; as a result I think I ended up with more attention.” Cerf said, “there were thousands of people who contributed to making the network what it is. I consider myself one of the oldest of the fathers of the Internet, but there are a lot of other ones.”

The popular term “Surfing the Net” also has an interesting connection to Cerf, although not a financial one. In 1983, the National Science Foundation (NSF) got involved with the Internet. One of the things they did was to stimulate the creation of the intermediate level network; the NSF was state funded to help these outfits start out. One of the nonprofits decided to build an intermediate network with a company in San Diego called General Atomic. They were also involved in the super computer project in San Diego and because of the location decided to call it SURFNET. “They had the advertising campaign down,” said Cerf, “and were all ready to go with a logo and T-shirts. A couple of days before they were ready to launch it: they realized that another non-profit for education company in the Netherlands was already using the SURFNET acronym. Since they couldn’t use this name they decided on California Education Network Foundation-CERFNET.”

Cerf was then asked if it would be alright to use his name and at first, he was hesitant about it. If the program wasn’t successful, he thought he’d be embarrassed. “And then 1 thought it would be kind of neat to have a network with your name on it. I was invited to the inauguration of the system in July 1989 and 1 wished them well. I have no financial involvement in the network.” Cerf was also instrumental in bringing e-mail to MCI in 1982. He cred its the earliest work in electronic mail to Larry Roberts of ARPANET and said it came about in 1970. Roberts was interested in timeshare: systems where people were physically connected to a timeshare and one computer was serving many people. “It wasn’t a big deal to leave a file for someone,” said Cerf, “and that’s the essence of what electronic mail (e-mail) is. Someone sends you something over the network and leaves it somewhere where you can find it.” He said Roberts began moving files back and forth to see if he could effectively duplicate them. Several other people got excited about this and started building software that was more elaborate than just sending a file from one place to another. Cerf stated, “Ray Tomlin son, senior programmer at Bolt Beranek and Newman is the guy who really deserves the credit for e mail. He’s the one who figured out how to leave messages from one computer to another. He was the one to develop the use of the @ sign. He was trying to figure out a way to distinguish between the name the user has to log in and the name of the machine itself.” To move mail back and forth you need two things: you need to know which mailbox it’s going to and which computer its going to. Steve Crock er, now senior vice president of Cybercash, led the development of the software for the ARPANET and Jon Vittal, now at GTE also had a major role.

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“When I came to MCI in 1982 they did not have e-mail; they didn’t know what it was.” A computer post office was built; it turned out to be an electronic mail system. It was used to move data from one place to another or to print out data so that you could send a hard copy later. The next step was to hook it up to the Internet. “By 1989 I was no longer with MCI; I was with Bob Kahn again at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives. The first thing I proposed was to connect the Internet mail systems. This was going to require a change in government policy because at the time there were no commercial mail systems. I knew the only way for the Internet to get big was for someone to break down policy law. I went to the Federal Networking Council in 1988 and proposed to develop this experimental relay between the MCI mail system and the Internet mail system. We announced to the world in July 1989 that we had this experimental relay and that the policy requirement was that we could run for one year. Every other commercial mail server decided they had to get on the Internet, too. Of course this is what I had hoped would hap pen. They got permission as well.” So now not only were they connect ed to the Internet, but they were connected to each other as well. So my role has been on the edge of some stuff and right the middle of other work.”

There is a story that Cerf’s interest in e-mail was personal as well. His wife, who had been profoundly deaf since the age of three wasn’t able to maintain phone con tact with her husband when he was in Europe. “She could talk, but she couldn’t hear. I made a point to try and communicate with her through e-mail,” said Cerf. This arrangement did have its drawbacks though.. According to Cerf it only worked occasionally and when their sons were around because they knew how to use the ARPANET system. “It wasn’t until 1995 that we got a lot of pressure to use e-mail. This was the source of a lot of frustration for the deaf who were still focused on the use of the TTY to communicate which doesn’t work well with computers.” Cerf did add however, that as the cost of computers came down and e-mail became more accessible, a greater number in the deaf community began to use the system for communication. Cerf was asked what he thought about other applications of the computer for members of the disability community. “I see several things as evident,” said Cerf. An example he gave would be children with dyslexia or children with motor problems. Usually, these children are reluctant to write anything because they make mistakes so frequently and find using a pencil and paper to be very frustrating. “With a computer, mistakes are trivial. After you’ve finished your work, you go back and edit.” Sigrid Cerf, Vint’s wife, added, “another example would be that people who have grown up using the American sign language can now develop writing skills because they are no longer afraid of making mistakes when using a key board. They correct the mistake and move on in a positive way.” Cerf and his wife both agreed that computers, the Internet and e-mail could have a truly positive effect for the disability community. Cerf told Chet Cooper in a recent interview “I know a stockbroker who has a daughter with cerebral palsy that was having a hard time in school. So he bought a Mac (computer) for her to use. She had many motor problems, but the computer transformed her interest in school due to the fact that she could now prepare papers. It was such a profound experience that he started a foundation based upon matching computers with people with disabilities that could use them. It has become a global exchange system where companies are encouraged to donate their old equipment.” One of the most important applications of the computer, according to Cerf, is that it allows people to communicate with each other even though they can’t get around. People who are confined because of illness or severe disability can get on the Internet and visit places they could not get to.

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Are there other technologies we may not know of yet forthcoming in the future? “There are a whole set of prosthetic technologies, like cochlear implants, that use electronics and computers as a means of control and direct nerve stimulation,” Cerf answered. Sigrid has a cochlear implant and although diagnosed as profoundly deaf at age three, the implant was not available to her until she was an adult. The Internet helped her get in touch with Johns Hopkins to learn more about the cochlear implant. “Previously I could not even get in touch with the hospitals,” said Sigrid, “I phoned Johns Hopkins several times and could not get them to respond to a call or a fax. Someone in Israel gave me their e-mail address and then I immediately got a response from them.” Cerf added, “I can sympathize with that. I get a lot of phone calls during the day and I can’t get back to every one within the time I would have to return them. E-mail is a lot better because I can do it at 3 a.m.” The Cerf’s method of spoken communication had previously been lip reading by Sigrid; neither of them knows sign language. With the cochlear implants “I no longer need to look at people to hear them,” said Sigrid.

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“We met through a hearing aid dealer,” said Sigrid, reminiscing many years before in the beginning of her relationship with Cerf. “Vint had just graduated from Stanford University; I had just gotten my first job in Los Angeles. My first month’s salary was going toward paying for my first hearing aid and I wasn’t feeling good about that. The hearing aid dealer asked me to come back later and meet someone. That turned out to be Vint. He invited me to lunch and I was so taken by his enthusiasm that I forgot about everything else. His range of expression was that of a Renaissance man; I could tell that already. We were engaged about six weeks later.” Sigrid is trained in interior design and architecture illustration work. She worked in the field for over a decade and said she loved it. She doesn’t know if the implant would have an impact on her professional life because she no longer works. She said she’s just trying to keep up with her husband. “I travel with him just so we can have a date.” In her personal life, there is no doubt about the positive impact and change it has brought to her life. “Before the implant I was deaf. I had no choice. Before the TTY I did not communicate much at all. I would make maybe one or two calls a week. The TTY was slow; I had many frustrating moments. I never enjoyed using the TTY,” said Sigrid, “after the speech processor was activated, I gave away my TTY.” The success rate [of the implant] depends upon how good the hearing memory was. “I lost my speech at the age of three. I was probably lucky to have been born a girl because girls speak a little earlier. Speech acquisition is everything.” Sigrid said there is a debate about the use of cochlear implants in children and that many people are negative about it. It is not yet known in many cases how effective the implant is in children; it will take some years before the results are seen in children. “I don’t understand the reluctance in giving children every possible chance to enjoy beautiful sound,” mused Sigrid. “My most profound feeling [after the cochlear implant],” she added, was that my attitude in the past had been negative, like I had been con fined by the disability. It was shocking to realize how incredible this was. When I was profoundly deaf, I thought in terms of what I could not do, even though I had been raised to think of what I could do. I worked in a confined world. I would depend on an oral interpreter to go out and hear a lecture. I would depend on close captions on the television. I would depend on a TTY. I would depend on you to fill me in at a cocktail party. So I avoided many things based on negative experiences. I don’t have those negative experiences anymore. At first I was like a newborn, or a crazy person. It gradually simmered down. I am still excited about just talking to people. I can’t wait to just go out to a party. I went from an introverted person to an extroverted one.”

Sigrid said the impetus pushing her to new experiences is her love of sound. “I am learning the sound of all these new words,” she said happily. “When you get your vocabulary through reading your mind tells you how things are pronounced and as a result you end up mispronouncing everything. I am learning how different everyone’s voice sounds. I listen to novels in the car or when I walk the dog. I am going to study the nine symphonies of Beethoven. When the phone rings I will run to find out who is on the other end…how many people do that?” Sigrid then added slyly, “the game is if I get your name the first time around. If I am very serious about listening I take out my microphone and attach it to your lapel. The sound would be very clear, I wouldn’t miss much.”

This couple hasn’t missed mach. As technology rapidly unfolds Vint and Sigrid are surfing that wave into the future.

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