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20 People Who Changed Tech: The Internet Pioneers

Just as the Internet isn't hierarchical but a peer-to-peer network, so are its "inventors," a gaggle of visionary nerds.

The Starting Five were in and out of academia, starting companies and then sometimes going back to work at a think tank or university. Kleinrock is the exception. He has been a computer science professor at UCLA pretty much ever since he grabbed a Ph.D. at MIT for his work on building a mathematical theory for packet networks. If there was a single starting gun to the Internet, it was when the first message was sent from his lab to Stanford Research Institute's SDS computer. Kleinrock and some of his friends, including Roberts, Kahn and Cerf, had built the first Internet message, sent on Oct. 29, 1969.


Larry Roberts took Licklider's 1960 paper and pushed the idea of computer-to-computer communications using data packets. By 1966, he had become the program manager for networks at ARPA. Later, he spun out Telenet commercially, and the company eventually was sold to Sprint and then to Verizon. When Roberts suggested building the ARPANET, the first actual network of computers, he was leading the parade with precious few followers. The first .com address wasn't even registered until 1985 (symbolics.com).

Vint Cerf is the uncle you always wished you had. He was a program manager at DARPA and pushed funding to develop TCP/IP. He then went to MCI, which started the first commercial email system connected to the Internet (MCI Mail). I once gave an award to Cerf for helping create a solution that may do more for world peace and understanding than any development we have seen -- ironic since it was designed for war.

Bob Kahn, one of the developers of TCP/IP, shares with Cerf the designation as Father of the Internet. One of Kahn's relatives was Herman Kahn, whose book, On Thermonuclear War, was the primer that the doomsday boys read early and often. Herman Kahn was satirized as "Dr. Strangelove" by Stanley Kubrick.

Bob Kahn in his own way was as much a futurist as his relative. He gets credit for building on the idea of an open architecture that would let all computers and networks communicate with one another, regardless of hardware or software. I sat on one of Kahn's committees years ago and was amazed at "how out of touch he is" in his predictions about how much bandwidth would be available and at what low price. But he knew; I was guessing.

Laptop in Field

We used to talk about the old Motorola as a "loose confederation of warring tribes." The early Internet was a loose confederation of warring protocols. In fact, when Berners-Lee, now a professor at MIT but then a researcher at CERN, announced the World Wide Web, a few other platforms, including Gopher (see Marc Andreessen's Mosaic browser, later called Netscape), were equally playing to an unknown audience. But the WWW prevailed.

The Internet never created great wealth for the founders, though it made some entrepreneurs and venture capitalists seriously rich. There was always the feeling that the success of the Internet depended on cooperation of companies and researchers. Berners-Lee could have patented the WWW and made one of the greatest fortunes in technology history, but he chose not to. He made the WWW available to the world -- for free!

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, he appeared personally and tweeted: "This is for everyone," which was spelled out in LCD lights attached to the chairs of the 80,000 people at the opening ceremonies.

The early Internet had no pictures, no sound and no motion. Today, half the world's population searches the Internet on a regular basis. There are 1 billion Internet-capable smartphones, and if you assume that every cell phone will soon be a smartphone, we're aiming at 5 billion people.

But we're missing something when we analyze how great men and women brought technology to bear: the very important act of visionary individuals implementing and using all this technology.

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There is an expertise in deploying new technology; IT doesn't happen by accident. The early adopters face skepticism and criticism. Often they're viewed as "too visionary," without their eyes on the here and now.

In the next and last part of this 20-part series, we'll chronicle some of these very smart users and implementers of information technology, those who jump on advancements and tie them to real-life applications.

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/8/2013 | 7:41:10 PM
re: 20 People Who Changed Tech: The Internet Pioneers
Telenet was sold to GTE. GTE Telenet was combined with GTE Sprint and assets of United Telecom to become US Sprint. When GTE sold their share of US Sprint to United Telecom, United Telecom renamed the entire company Sprint. Verizon has never owned any part of Telenet.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/8/2013 | 8:15:44 PM
re: 20 People Who Changed Tech: The Internet Pioneers
Interesting series, Howard.

Jim Donahue
Managing Editor
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2013 | 7:07:10 PM
re: 20 People Who Changed Tech: The Internet Pioneers
How about Douglas Engelbart, who just passed away?
User Rank: Strategist
7/9/2013 | 9:22:50 PM
re: 20 People Who Changed Tech: The Internet Pioneers
Excellent hsitory and personal commentary on the figures at the roots of the Internet. It seems so long ago, but wasn't. Charlie Babcock, senior writer, IW
Shane M. O'Neill
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
7/11/2013 | 1:21:47 PM
re: 20 People Who Changed Tech: The Internet Pioneers
Great story, and an under-reported part of U.S. history. The peer-to-peer, collaborative nature of the journey resonates. It would be a great movie, if done right.
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