Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Internet Protocols (TCP/IP)
Within ten years of graduating from high school, Vinton Cerf had begun co-designing and -developing the protocols and structure of what became the Internet.
After graduating from high school in Van Nuys, California, Cerf entered Stanford University, and graduated in 1965 with a BS in Mathematics. Cerf's specialty was already Computer Science --- then considered by most to be a quirky subcategory of math or electrical engineering. But computer science was coming into its own at a few graduate programs, corporations, and government agencies. At it turned out, Cerf proved himself in all three realms
After two years with IBM, Cerf entered the Computer Science program at UCLA, earning an MS (1970) and a PHD (1972). He was certainly in the right place at the right time.
In 1961, MIT professor Leonard Kleinrock had published the first paper on packet switching theory. In 1962, MIT professor J.C.R. Licklider had published his "Galactic Network" memos: the first recorded vision of a global computer network accessible from virtually any computer station. That same year, Licklider became the first head of computer research at the US Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he promoted his grand scheme. In 1965, MIT researcher Lawrence G. Roberts and Thomas Merrill made the first interstate connection of computers by telephone line: these experiments proved that any grand computer network would have to communicate by swapping "packets" of data, rather than passing single bits of data at the circuit level. The next year, Roberts joined DARPA; and when he drew up the plan for realizing Licklider's dream, the "ARPANET" (1967), Roberts made packet switching an essential component. Further work by Robert E. Kahn and others, including Kleinrock, now at UCLA, brought the ARPANET closer to implementation.
In 1969, Kleinrock's UCLA lab had the honor of being ARPANET's first node; the second was at the Stanford Research Institute. That year, the first host-to-host message was sent, from the first node to the second --- that is, from Vinton Cerf's current to his once-and-future place of work.
Working with Kleinrock at UCLA, Cerf helped develop the ARPANET's host-to-host protocol, "NCP." In 1972 --- the year in which Robert Kahn first demonstrated e-mail on ARPANET --- Cerf earned his doctorate and returned to Stanford, to teach Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In 1973, Kahn realized that NCP would not serve for the wholly "open architecture" that he envisioned for "internetting." So Kahn called on Cerf to help develop a better protocol, one that had sufficient flexibility and end-end reliability to meet the challenges of interference with transmissions and disparity of sources. Over the next five years, Kahn and Cerf solved the problems by inventing the twofold Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol ("TCP/IP").
Simply stated, TCP/IP allows for the "handshake" that introduces distant and different computers to each other in a virtual space. TCP controls and keeps track of the flow of data packets; IP addresses and forwards individual packets. TCP/IP, which became the required protocol of ARPANET in 1983, also allowed ARPANET to expand into the Internet, facilitating features like remote login via Telnet --- and, later, the World Wide Web. (ARPANET itself was finally decommissioned in 1990.)
At Stanford, then from 1976-82 as Project Manager and Principle Scientist at DARPA, Cerf was at the center of the global network's transformation. In 1982, Cerf joined MCI, where he led the team that developed & implemented MCI Mail, the first commercial Internet-based e-mail service. In 1986, Cerf became vice president of Bob Kahn's Corporation for National Research Initiatives, where he managed digital library, e-messaging, and internet projects.
In 1994, Cerf returned to MCI (now Worldcom), where he is now Senior Vice President for Internet Architecture and Technology. Cerf also sits on the Presidential IT Advisory Committee and the boards of numerous companies and foundations: e.g., the Internet Society (President, 1992-95). He appears on, and consults for, various television shows. Finally, as Distinguished Visiting Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cerf is designing an interplanetary internet.
Vinton Cerf's honors include, besides numerous fellowships, the Kilby Award;
the IEEE's Alexander Graham Bell Medal; and the National Medal
of Technology, received jointly with Robert Kahn (1997). He
remains a key player in the evolution of the internet.