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The Man Behind the Internet

Internet pioneer (and past ACM president) Vinton Cerf.

To Internet pioneer (and past ACM president) Vinton Cerf, "Programming was fascinating. You create a universe and then it does what you tell it to do."

Credit: Christopher Sturman

Q: What was your path to becoming a pioneer of the Internet?

I got introduced to a computer for the first time in 1958. It was taking radar signals coming from the northern part of Canada and was used to figure out whether Canadian geese were coming over the border or Russian bombers. And a couple years later I started programming. I had played the cello up until that point, and I had been taken at age 15 to a master’s class by Pablo Casals at Berkeley, and, you know, it was one of those eye-opening moments. How could any human being produce this kind of sound? But I got to the point where I was juggling cello lessons and programming computers. And programming computers was so fascinating. You create your own little universe, and then it does what you tell it to do.

Q: Tell us about your role in the invention of the Internet.

A: [Electrical engineer] Bob Kahn and I did the design in 1973. We worked for about six months to figure out how do you connect a whole bunch of different computer networks together and make it look like one net. We published a paper in 1974, and then we started implementing it.

Q: What is your biggest regret when you consider how the Internet has changed our lives?

The people who were building it were a bunch of engineers—pretty much a homogenous bunch of geeks, and all we wanted was to get it to work. The general public has a rather broad range of characteristics; some people do not have other people’s interests at heart, and so they run scams and generate malware and do all kinds of things that are harmful. I’m unhappy that the Internet is host to that. But it’s like every infrastructure. It’s like the road system we depend heavily on, but people get drunk, and they drive, and they destroy property or kill themselves or other people. And we don’t look to get rid of cars. So we just have to learn to make the system more secure, make you and me safer in our use of the net.


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