News & Politics

The Insider: Vint Cerf

Cerf, now in Google’s DC office, hasn’t seen his sartorial sense catch on. Photograph by Matthew Worden

Vint Cerf is widely credited, along with Robert Kahn, with founding the Internet. Today he’s Google’s chief Internet evangelist in Washington, where he’s spent more than 30 years since coming from Silicon Valley to work at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He’s received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, more than a dozen honorary degrees, and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

To me, science and math were always of interest. As a kid I was always curious about how things worked. I’d take my mother’s vacuum cleaner apart and put it back together, always with an extra nut or bolt. Sometimes a sock would get caught in the impeller of the washing machine, and I would have to take it apart. I was always excited when it would actually work after I put it together again! That excitement carried over into my years of writing software—because I’m also very excited when software actually works.

Around age ten, I got a really good chemistry set. It was particularly interesting because in those days—that would’ve been about 1953—the chemistry sets had things in them that you might not be able to get in chemistry sets today. You could get potassium permanganate, glycerin, powdered magnesium, sulfur, powdered aluminum, and iron filings; those ingredients were good for creating hypergolic materials, which means when you mix them together they burst into flames. They were great for building little volcanoes. We’d also do dumb things like find these old, empty military 30.06 casings, fill them full of match heads, and fire match-head rockets off. We never figured out where some of them went. I look back and say, boy, we were sure dumb and very lucky.

To be really precise, Bob Kahn, the other half of the Internet equation, is the one who thought up open networking and the ability to interconnect different types of packet switching. Bob visited me in the spring of 1973 and described the other networks on which he was then working, one of which was a mobile-radio packet network and the other a mobile-radio satellite—conceptually aimed at ships at sea. He wanted any computer on any network to be able to connect to the others end-to-end. As we discussed it, it became apparent very quickly what we needed to do: We needed to link them with something we called gateways, which are now called routers, which knew enough to communicate with each of the networks they touched.

We treated Internet packets as if each was a postcard stuck in an envelope. Say you were sending a postcard from Los Angeles to Tokyo and addressed the postcard all in Japanese. You could stick it inside an envelope that just read please send this to japan in English because for the first leg that was all the Los Angeles post office needed to know. If they got it to anywhere in Japan, then someone could tear open the envelope and see where it was supposed to go. That’s kind of what we decided to do with the Internet.

Bob and I worked on that problem for about six months; our paper was published in May 1974. That was the first time the Internet concept was published in a refereed journal. During 1974, my team at Stanford University worked on the details of what we now call TCP—that laboratory team included people from Japan, France, Norway, England—and the first detailed specifications were published in December 1974. In those is the first use of the word “Internet” because it was shorter than “internetwork.” The three people who wrote that specification paper were me, Yogen Dalal, who was an Indian graduate student, and Carl Sunshine.

In January 1975, Carl and I went to a conference in Hawaii. At one point, someone came into the hotel lobby and said, “Has anyone seen Cerf and Sunshine?” and everyone pointed outside at the beach.

When I joined Google, there was some discussion about what title I should have; I requested Archduke, thinking that sounded pretty Google-y. The reaction that I got was “Gee, that doesn’t fit into our nomenclature real well.” Then someone else pointed out that the last archduke was Ferdinand, and he was assassinated in 1914, which started World War I. Maybe that wasn’t the greatest title. So Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin suggested, “Why don’t you be our chief Internet evangelist because, after all, that’s what you have been doing for the last 35 years—trying to get more Internet out there.” It’s a title I really value because it gives me leave to do a lot of different things in the company and around the world. For me, job satisfaction is very closely tied to “what can I learn?”

The community that built the Internet and its predecessor, the Arpanet, was drawn from the computer-science world, not the telco world. The telecommunications world thought we were crazy. We went off and did it anyway. It was the fact that computer scientists were doing it that freed them from the conventional wisdom of telecommunications. That’s something that’s important to Google, too: We have a lot of young people in this company, and they are not bound by many past experiences. As Will Rogers is credited with saying, “It isn’t what you don’t know that troubles me; it’s what you know for damn sure that’s wrong.”

Information is at the core of everything that has allowed us to evolve as a civilization. If you’re a caveman, it’s important stuff like “don’t get too close to that animal because it will eat you.” We know it was handed down because those who didn’t have it died.

Sure, almost every piece of technology has its abuses. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine a credible society whose policies are not rooted in solid technology and engineering or science. An honest scientist will accept raw data that contradicts his or her theories and beliefs and will change because the data say you have to. If you are unwilling to accept data that contradict your beliefs, you are operating in a fantasyland. Government needs to be rooted in a philosophy of reality and fact. Policy should come out of facts. It’s always been an article of faith for me that facts matter. To discover that this is a radical position is frankly stunning, astonishing, unexpected, scary.

I am hearing-impaired; I have a declining impairment, meaning it gets worse over time. I’ve been wearing hearing aids since about age 13. Thankfully, hearing-aid technology has been getting better faster than my hearing has gotten worse, so most of the time I have functioned as an oral, hearing adult. My wife was hearing as a child and then lost all her hearing when she had spinal meningitis at age three. She was profoundly deaf until she was 53, when she had a cochlear implant, and ten years later she had another one. It was spectacular—she rejoined the hearing world determined not to allow any decibel to escape undetected. We had to get a bigger house because of all the parties she wanted to throw to make up for 50 years of silence.

If you’ve ever looked at the list of the other people who have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it is jaw-dropping. I remember getting the list and saying, “Okay, obviously there’s been a mistake.” There were 14 people in the group where Bob Kahn and I were honored. One of the other recipients present was Arnold Palmer. Bob’s a big golfer, and he was much more excited about the picture with Arnold Palmer than with the President!

We moved to Washington in 1976 when I joined the Defense Department to run the Internet program. My wife went out and got me three three-piece suits, and I’ve worn them or newer ones ever since. When I came to Google, I tried to up the sartorial quotient there. It didn’t work.

Google is here in DC because the company has realized that policy is as important to it as technology.

This article first appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.  

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