The indisputable inventors of one of the greatest planet-changing instruments of all time live a few minutes apart in McLean and have lived in Northern Virginia for four decades.
In the early 1970s, Vinton Gray Cerf and Robert E. Kahn—Vint and Bob to all—created this … thing. It was a wireless way for computers to communicate to other computers, without connecting wires and even without apparent antennae. It seemed to be magic. Eventually it came to be called “the internet.”
You may even be using it now. And if not now, then certainly at some point, or several points, today, you will be using it.
The impact of the internet on life as we know it is profound and ongoing, but did you know until right now whom to credit—or blame?
We’re Zooming into their McLean abodes via the very thing they developed, but we’re not going to address the technological rabbit holes that few of us will understand. Besides, they’ve been there and done that plenty.
“The last time we did this, it took three hours,” says Cerf, 78, possibly dreading the conversation to come. “The first hour everybody talked about ARPANET, the second hour they all talked about the World Wide Web, and it took the third hour to get to the internet.”
“So we never did the third hour,” adds Kahn, 82, with a sigh.
Well, good news: We don’t want to know about any of that. No, what we want to know is, what’s your favorite website?
Kahn is ringing in from a sunny room off the kitchen in the McLean home where he and his wife, Patrice Lyons, have lived since 1993. He’s slightly late to the Zoom call because the invitation didn’t come through—email again, right?—which leads to the first burning question: Are we ever going to master the internet?
“Oh, yeah, we already did,” he says confidently and without hesitation. “Fifty years ago.”
This might come as a surprise to those of us with the Verizon repairman’s number on speed dial, but Cerf quickly adds: “It’s not the internet that’s the problem. It’s the applications that run on top of it that are the challenge.”
The internet is one thing, but the typical cyberspace user cruises the World Wide Web that supports the apps, everything from basic email to sophisticated functions such as GPS. It’s the “WWW” in front of those Uniform Resource Locators—did you know “URL” even had a name?—that navigates us from one page to the next.
Cerf is Zooming in from his office in McLean, not far from Kahn’s home. Cerf, who had been teaching and doing “internetworking” research at Stanford University, moved to this area in 1976 to be closer to where Kahn, with whom he had joined forces in 1973, was working at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known as DARPA) in Arlington.
Cerf and his wife, Sigrid, lived in Annandale’s Camelot neighborhood for 27 years. Their two sons work in the film industry in California. In 2002, when the house “ran out of room for wine,” Cerf says, they moved to their home in McLean. The wine cellar, by design, is arm’s length from his home-office desk. The office is festooned with framed photos of memorable occasions and what seems to be an array of trophies. “Do you see the wall behind Vint?” Kahn asks. “There’s a picture of the four of us getting the Queen Elizabeth Prize.”
Indeed, it’s Her Majesty, with Cerf and Kahn. In 2013, Cerf and Kahn—along with computer pioneer Louis Pouzin, browser developer Marc Andreessen, and WWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee—received the inaugural QEP for Engineering for “seminal contributions to the protocols that together make up the fundamental architecture of the internet.”
Having a QEP trophy on the mantel might be the capstone to anyone else’s career, but Cerf and Kahn have collected countless awards over the years. The beribboned Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the U.S.—was draped on them by President George W. Bush in 2005 (in the same class as Muhammad Ali). That was preceded by the ACM A.M. Turing Award, the highest distinction in computer science, in 2004. Add to the pile the Légion d’Honneur (the highest order of merit in France), the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation (the highest technology honor), and dozens of honorary doctoral degrees.
Which, we wondered, is the most meaningful? The Presidential Medal of Freedom has to be up there, right? As it happens, it depends on who is giving it and why.
“The Turing Award is a statement from colleagues in the field,” Kahn says. “It’s your peers commenting on you, whereas the Presidential Medal of Freedom is not from your peers but can be based on many different criteria, and it’s not necessarily the same criteria for every president.”
At this point, the Zoom call momentarily freezes on Kahn. “Have you tested the data rate you’re getting lately, just out of curiosity?” Cerf asks. Nice to know the guys who invented it have the same issues as the rest of us.
“We have many, many awards, and they’re significant in different ways,” agrees Cerf. “The Japan Prize was a big deal”—in 2008, they received Japan’s highest honor for science and technology—“and we got to meet the emperor and the empress and spent a week in Japan. The Queen Elizabeth Prize is a big deal partly because it was the [inaugural] prize and it was for engineering, as opposed to other things.”
The recognition is nice, but, we ask, what are they most proud of when it comes to this all-pervasive technology they developed?
“Oh, well, first of all, I’m proud of the fact it works,” Cerf says with a laugh. “We like to build stuff that works. And second, I’m really proud of the fact that so many other people wanted to help make it work.” He’s quick to give credit to Berners-Lee “because a lot of innovations of the past 20 years have been built on top of the World Wide Web … It simply reinforces my belief that we had done a pretty good job of keeping the system very open to new ideas and new technology.”
It’s interesting to think that the internet was developed by a couple of civil servants in Northern Virginia, working on the government-wage scale. “I thought we were making pretty good money when I came to ARPA in 1976,” says Cerf. “It might have been $16,000 a year, does that sound right?”
“No,” says Kahn. “When I joined ARPA in 1972, the salary was something on the order of mid-20s.”
Still! And to think it was happening at 1400 Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn. Kahn shares an image on his screen of a historic marker titled “ARPANET.” “This is the plaque that sits out in front of the building at 1400 Wilson Boulevard,” Kahn says. The marker identifies the project that “became the foundation for the internet at this site from 1970 to 1975.”
As for his favorite use of the internet, Cerf says it’s the search function. “I am always on search engines and almost can’t write a word without having my Chrome browser up and running and asking it for factual information.” Not surprisingly, Cerf is a vice president at Google, the search-engine giant; he’s also the company’s Chief Internet Evangelist, and has been since 2005.
His second-favorite function is email, which, it should be pointed out, he pioneered during his time with the communications company MCI.
“Email is the one I’m using almost all the time,” Kahn says. “Vint must be more inquisitive than I am—I’m not doing as much in the way of searching. I do quite a bit, but it’s frustrating because many of the things I want I can’t find just by searching.”
That’s because what Kahn wants to search for is impossible—for now. For example, “if you want to know the three most important events that happened around a particular event, you can’t do that. If you want to know who’s on the plane with me when I flew from London to the U.S. … you can’t ask those kinds of questions because it’s either private information or it’s looking for correlations.”
What intrigues Kahn, who is president and CEO of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (which he founded in 1986; Cerf was employee No. 2), is “the whole area of information management, which I think is really what the internet is all about…You cannot manage it. A phone call is not managed—once a call is over, it’s gone. [For example,] ‘Give me the call Vint and I had 14 years ago.’ It’s not anywhere, unless somebody saved and managed that call.”
“The [Google] Calendar application does let you save things like that,” Cerf chimes in. “I can say, ‘Show me all the meetings I’ve had with Bob Kahn back to 2005.’ I can actually do that.”
“Why don’t you go get the ones we had in 1968?”
“Well, the problem with that is, I’m not running the Google Calendar program back then because Google didn’t exist.”
“That’s a good research project,” says Kahn, always the thinker. “Why don’t you figure out how to do that?”
“Ah, the time-machine project,” Cerf sighs, perhaps revealing a Google secret. The time machine is hampered “until we generate sufficient negative energy and go find a couple of free wormholes.”
Now that the internet is humming throughout the globe, it’s all good, right? Well, no. “Have you heard of the Carrington Event of 1859?” Cerf says ominously. According to Google (thanks, Google!), a spectacular geomagnetic storm shot out of the sun and penetrated the Earth’s magnetosphere “and wiped out the telegraph system,” says Cerf, with wonder in his voice. “Telegraph wires acted as a big antenna and took all that energy and just blew out the entire network. If we get another coronal mass ejection of that magnitude, it would do enormous damage, not just to the internet but everything electronic.”
There’s a pause. “There’s another, artificial, way to do that,” he adds. “Set off a 50-megaton bomb. If you blow that thing up maybe 50,000 feet or so, you would create a huge electromagnetic pulse over a very large area and wipe out most of the electrical power grid and any electronics that were attached to it.”
Some days, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, given the unsavory side of the ’net. For his part, Kahn was already anticipating trouble for their brainchild. “The thing that bothers me about the internet is how people are misusing it or trying to use it in harmful ways,” he says, adding he had a conversation with Berners-Lee at the birth of the web regarding disinformation. “I asked him, ‘How are you going to make the information you get viable? How can you trace its provenance?’”
Then, as now, there was no easy answer. But the Zoom timer looms, so one last question, the one we’ve been dying to ask: Fathers of the internet, what are your favorite websites?
“I have one I go to regularly: CellarTracker,” says Cerf. “A couple hundred thousand people are part of that, and so almost invariably somebody has had the wine that I just opened. If they didn’t, I put in a comment. That’s a site I go to on a daily basis because we typically open a bottle for dinner every night.”
“I’m a sports fan,” Kahn chimes in. “Golf, tennis, whatever—I’m looking for up-to-date information on sports. I just look for ‘PGA golf’ to get the golf scores or ‘NCAA women’ to get women’s basketball scores. I don’t care what the website is; I just want the information.”