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Radia Perlman

The Mother of the Internet (1951)

If there is one lesson to be drawn from the historical narratives of innovations, it is that creativity is a collaborative process. This is true for every era of creative disruption, such as the Scientific and Industrial Revolution, but it is most certainly true for the digital age as well. As historian Isaac Walterson previously proclaimed: “An invention [...] usually comes not from an individual brainstorm but from a collaboratively woven tapestry of creativity”. The same is true for the following digital age phenomenon: the Internet, the global system of interconnected computer networks that link devices worldwide. Therefore, it seems erroneous to attribute it to a single ‘Father of the Internet’. Nevertheless, some individuals have been referred to as such due to their crucial involvement. Computer engineers Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn, for example, created some of the foundational protocols for its establishment. Similarly, U.S. Senator Al Gore provided some of the vital funding for the Internet to be developed.

Equally crucial has been the involvement of Dr. Radia Perlman, who is often referred to, not as the father, but ‘The Mother of the Internet’. Radia is most famous for her invention of the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). She invented this protocol in 1984 to address the issue of ‘bridge loops’. Formulated crudely, bridge loops refer to the existence of interconnected paths between the nodes of an Internet network that a data packet can follow to reach its destination. Being forwarded continuously, though, these data packets ultimately loop perpetually through the network, causing the latter to crash eventually. Radia believed the solution could be found in the fact that the network nodes possess unique 48-bit MAC addresses. Using these addresses, she devised a network protocol to ensure that the nodes could communicate with each other. This allowed the network to designate one root node in the network that determined the shortest path for the data packet to reach its destination. Other redundant ones could now be deactivated, loops were eliminated and a network crash was prevented.

“I think that I shall never see ... a graph more lovely than a tree,’’ is how Radia starts the famous poem in which she explains how TCP works. From the numerous network contributions she made, it is this protocol that provided her with the title ‘The Mother of the Internet’. Indeed, it has been claimed that the Internet as it exists today would not do so without her genius invention. It is therefore of no surprise that she was listed as one of the twenty most influential people in IT by Data Communications Magazine.

Notably, Radia herself is not keen on the maternal moniker given to her. Just as Isaac, she does not believe one single individual deserves credit for inventing the Internet. Moreover, she believes it is strange that the title emphasises gender. “I mostly don’t even think about gender,’’ she once steadily claimed.

Radia Perlman

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