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US: Internet Inventors Surprised By Network's Success

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 24 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The two so-called "fathers of the Internet" say they never expected the profound impact their invention would have on the lives of people around the world.

Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, both Americans, made the comment during a press conference Monday to publicize the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology that will take place in Washington in June.

Cerf and Kahn are credited with creating the Internet, the world's largest computer network, which links millions of people to each other around the world.

The two men met in the 1970's when they were chosen by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the U.S. Defense Department, to help develop a communications system that would connect a few geographically dispersed computers over a shared network.

The two men say their project started out with a simple goal -- to develop technology that would let computers on different networks talk to each other. They say they never dreamed their invention would create an enormous new communications medium that would not only greatly impact global trade and commerce, but also bring people from every corner of the earth together in one arena.

Says Cerf: "It is encouraging to think the Internet is doing more to educate, connect, and serve people than ever before. In essence, it seems poised to profoundly change the way we live, work and play. It has the potential to improve the quality of our lives now and in the future."

The two men published a paper in May 1974, introducing their research to the world scientific community. It was this paper that outlined the architecture of the system which eventually became the Internet.

Cerf and Kahn say that contrary to popular Internet legend, their original classified assignment was not to help a U.S. military computer network survive a nuclear attack, but rather to permit a few remote computers to be connected quickly in war time via radio and satellite.

Says Cerf: "Twenty five years ago...we were happy just to get packets of data from one computer to another."

Cerf, who is now a senior vice president of MCI Telecommunications, says he and Kahn were happy to be able to make the new technology available to the international community. But he adds it was more of a scientific exchange rather than a concerted effort to form a huge global network.

Cerf says he is amazed that the Internet has grown from its "humble beginnings" to a "telecommunications tidal wave." Still, he adds that he never expected his invention to have such a personal impact on the way people around the world talk to each other.

"I am fascinated both by the creative uses people are making of our invention and by the issues its use has raised," explains Cerf.

Cerf says he is also astonished by what has been accomplished economically on the Internet since electronic commerce began on the network in 1990 -- just eight years ago.

Cerf says when you compare what has been done economically on the Internet in the past eight years to what has been accomplished over the past 125 years with the telephone system, the potential economic power of the Internet is staggering.

Kahn, who is currently chairman of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives -- a non-profit technology research organization he founded in 1986 -- agrees.

He says he, too, was totally unprepared for the way in which the Internet has affected national and international economic and trade issues.

Says Kahn: "We never really appreciated the profound impact the Internet would have on global commerce and trade....But when I reflect back on these developments, I am pleased at how they have contributed to the explosive economic growth that has taken place in our nation and, in fact, around the world."

Last year, Cerf and Kahn were given the U.S.'s highest award for scientific and technological advancement -- the Presidential National Medal of Technology.