The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Vinton Gray Cerf

Born 23 June 1943, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

ACM A.M. Turing Award (2004) with Robert E. Kahn “for pioneering work on internetworking, including the design and implementation of the Internet’s basic communications protocols, TCP/IP, and for inspired leadership in networking.”

Vinton Cerf, son of an aerospace executive, studied Mathematics at Stanford University (Bachelor of Science 1965). He has suffered from hearing loss since childhood, which fostered his interest in alternative communication options via computer. After his undergraduate studies, Cerf spent two years working for IBM (1965-67), and then enrolled in the graduate program in Computer Science at the University of California, Los Angeles (Master of Science 1970, Ph.D. 1972). He then went back to Stanford to teach and conduct research (1972-1976). Together with Robert E. Kahn, he developed the network protocols TCP/IP during this time for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), working at DARPA from 1976-1982. Cerf subsequently became one of the key figures of the Internet. He was Vice President of engineering of MCI Digital Information Systems Company where he led the development of MCI Mail (1982-1986), Vice President of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) (1986-1994) and Senior Vice President of Architecture and Technology of MCI (1994-2005). Vinton G. Cerf has served as Vice President and chief Internet evangelist for Google since October 2005. In this role, he is responsible for identifying new enabling technologies to support the development of advanced, Internet-based products and services from Google. He is also an active public face for Google in the Internet world. He has been a member of many committees concerned with standardization of the Internet (Internet Architecture Board, Internet Engineering and Research Task Forces). He co-founded the Internet Society and was its president from 1992-1995, and he served as Chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) (2000-07).

Cerf has received many prizes and awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Technology (1997), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005) and the Japan Prize (2008). Together with Robert E. Kahn, Marc Andreessen, Louis Pouzin and Tim Berners-Lee, he shared the £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2013). In the same year he was inducted as an officer of the French Legion d’Honneur. In 2016, Cerf was elected Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS). Cerf and his wife, Sigrid, have been married since 1966 and have two sons, David and Bennett. Cerf’s hobbies include fine wine, gourmet cooking and mind-rotting science fiction.

Widely known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet”, Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet. Whilst still a student, Cerf helped to develop a protocol for data exchange (the Network Control Program or NCP) for the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). In computer science, a protocol is a collection of rules determining the format and procedures for data exchange between computers or other devices. The first two nodes of the ARPANET were located at University of California, Los Angeles, and at the Stanford Research Institute, in Menlo Park, California. At the core of the ARPANET was a technology called “packet switching”. This new means of communication was extended to satellite and mobile radio as part of DARPA’s network research program. From summer 1973, Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf developed for DARPA the foundations for a network protocol that allowed data exchange in packet form across multiple, heterogeneous packet networks. This protocol became TCP/IP. IP, the “Internet Protocol”, carries packets from node to node across multiple networks, while TCP, “Transmission Control Protocol”, defines the rules of communication between two end points on the Internet. To understand how IP and TCP work together, one can imagine that a stream of data is broken up and the pieces are written according to TCP rules onto postcards that are then inserted into envelopes that are addressed according to IP rules. “Routers” read the IP address on each envelope and briefly store and then forward the envelopes from router to router until they reach the destination.

The receiver takes the postcards from the envelopes and, according to the rules of TCP, reassembles the stream of data and sends acknowledging postcards to the sender to prevent unneeded retransmissions.

Vinton Cerf and Robert E. Kahn published this concept in 1974 in the paper “A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication”. In the same year Cerf and his colleagues wrote a detailed Request for Comments (RFC 675) for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in which TCP was documented. It was followed by many other RFCs, through which TCP/IP evolved to become the standard for data transfer on the Internet.