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Net Origins

Vincent Cerf, one of the "Fathers of the Internet," discusses Al Gore, interplanetary connections and the importance of a three-piece suit.



Style: First, tell me about this three-piece-suit project of yours.

Cerf: I've been wearing three-piece suits ever since I came to Washington. My wife thought that in 1967 that would be an appropriate attire. And so it's become a trademark. That's all I have are three-piece suits. I have to have them made — especially now, because you don't usually get three-piece suits off the rack. I'd like to revive the practice. Especially in cold weather — it's wonderful.

Why do you want to revive it?

I just think it looks better than the rather casual dress that seems to be affected these days.

Let's get this out of the way. If you're known as the Father of the Internet, what's Al Gore known as?

First of all, I'm not the only guy who has the responsibility for the Net. My partner, Robert Kahn — who is also here in the Washington area — and I did the basic design way back in 1973. But there are literally thousands of people at this point who deserve credit. And former Vice President Gore actually deserves credit too. He's the butt of this awful joke, which is not fair. I could go on for a long time on this point. But suffice it to say, while he was a U.S. senator, he was one of the first elected officials to show interest in this technology. And as vice president, he actually played a very important role in helping to pass legislation that made it possible for commercial traffic to be carried on what was then a government-sponsored backbone.

You say that it took about 10 years of work from teams of people before the Internet as we know it today emerged in January 1983. What was the biggest technical challenge that you faced with the system's design?

The first five years were taken up trying to make the protocols as robust as we could make them. Remember that we were doing this in a military context, so there was a lot of concern over resilience, and the ability to overcome hostile impairment in the communications environment. ... From '73 to '83 the big challenge was to get it implemented on a great many operating systems. Back in those days, every computer manufacturer had their own proprietary operating systems. And in order to have the Internet protocols available for virtually everybody, we had to pursue very heavy program implementation, and then, of course, testing.

By the end of '81, we thought we had enough implementations done and tested that we could then tell everybody that they had to install the software and get it running in time to meet the deadline of January 1. And for the most part, everybody did. But everybody in this case was about 400 computers. ... Now it's 400 million.

How did you envision the Internet and how people would use it?

It grew out of an original experiment in packet switching that ARPA [the Advanced Research Projects Agency] started in the late 1960s — that was called the ARPANET. And out of the ARPANET project was used wireline communications to link small computers together around the country using this packet-switching technology. Out of that very quickly came three applications: remote access to remote time-sharing systems, transfer of files and e-mail. E-mail sort of sneaked up on us in 1971 and surprised everybody with its utility. What really triggered a big explosion of information online was the introduction of the World Wide Web [in the 1980s]. ...

I spent from 1976 to '82 in the Defense Department managing this program, very focused on what I knew it could do for the military — for command and control. But the parties who were doing the work, of course, were in the private sector and the research institutions — the universities and research centers. So there was an evolution simultaneously for civilian applications, academic applications and military applications. Around 1988, it dawned on me that we would not be able to deliver this very useful capability to the general public if we didn't turn it into a commercially supported resource. So I began lobbying that year for permission to carry commercial traffic on the program and Internet backbone.

What's surprised you the most about how that vision has played out?

All of the interesting things that the network does happen at the edges of the Net — in computers, and the laptops, and the PDAs and so on — [which] means that there has been just an enormous opportunity for people to try out different applications without having to get permission of the Internet service providers. This is very different from trying to do anything interesting with the telephone network. ... So this fostered a great deal of experimentation.

Second, the Web encouraged a huge influx of information on the Net, … leading to companies like Google having tremendous success helping people find things in that huge sea of information.

The third thing ... because this is a two-way medium, you found people engaging in group communications that they could not engage in with the other media. ... So the social impact, and the non-national character of the system ... has led to the discovery of common interests among parties who might never have otherwise interacted with each other. I think there is a democratizing character to this technology.

Thirty years from now, how do you predict we'll be using the Internet?

I'm pretty sure that virtually everybody on the planet will have access to it. I'm pretty sure that there will be perhaps as many as 100 devices per person on the Net. These will be sensory systems, things that track where we are or what our cars are doing. Devices that we carry around with us, the clothes that we wear ... and it will have expanded, of course, to cover most of the solar system because we'll be pushing interplanetary capability out with every new space mission that gets launched.

Has anybody ever asked if you were a nerd in high school?

Of course I was. In fact, I went to high school in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley — and I'm sure the only guy who wore a sports coat, a tie, and carried a briefcase.

Finally, do you know who invented that little sideways smiley face that people are always putting on their e-mails?

You know, I don't know who did that. It sounds like it'd be a good Google question. ... That kind of shorthand used to be common even in Morse code. If you look up "origins or inventions of emoticons," see what you turn up. S

Vinton Cerf speaks to the Greater Richmond Technology Council as part of its technology luncheon series Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 11:30 at the Richmond Marriott. Reservations are required. 379-1177. For more information, go to

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