In retrospect, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that Radia Perlman ascended to the short list of the top technological minds of the 20th century. Both of her parents were engineers working for the government, and as a child growing up in Loch Arbour, she found herself irresistibly drawn to logic puzzles.
But it did apparently come as a surprise to Perlman herself – she once told Women in Engineering Magazine that despite taking a programming class in high school (she was the only female student enrolled), “I assumed I’d either get electrocuted or I’d break something” when the time came to get hands-on.
Nonetheless, Perlman excelled at MIT, landing her first paid work as a programmer with the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1971. From there she developed a child-friendly version of the educational robotics language LOGO, calling it TORTIS (Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System), establishing herself as a pioneer in the fledgling field of youth computer programming.
But her most notable career achievement – that which would lead others to label her “Mother of the Internet,” a sobriquet she disliked, saying many individuals deserve credit – was the development of the algorithm for what was known as the Spanning Tree Protocol in 1985. It became an essential component to network bridges, or devices that create a single aggregate network from multiple communications networks or network segments; the work has been more simply described as having put the “basic traffic rules into place” for the Internet.
Keenly aware that the finer details of her invention might just go over the heads of laypersons, Perlman wrote a short poem to describe the process – the first poem she ever wrote, titling it Algorhyme – which she included in the abstract of her scientific paper introducing the creation:
I think that I shall never see
A graph more lovely than a tree.
A tree whose crucial property
Is loop-free connectivity.
A tree that must be sure to span
So packets can reach every LAN.
First, the root must be selected
By ID, it is elected.
Least-cost paths from root are traced
In the tree, these paths are placed.
A mesh is made by folks like me
Then bridges find a spanning tree.
Perlman wound up with three degrees from MIT – a bachelor’s in 1973, a master’s in 1976, and her PhD in 1988. Her doctoral thesis focused on routing in environments where malicious network failures are present, setting the foundation for almost all of the work in the field that has been performed since.
Her career has included stops at some of the world’s top tech companies, including Oracle and Sun Microsystems, and she has taught at Harvard and MIT. Perlman also wrote two widely used computer science textbooks, Interconnections: Bridges, Routers, Switches, and Internetworking Protocols; and Network Security: Private Communication in a Public World.
Along with those accomplishments came an avalanche of accolades. Perlman was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2016 and the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014. She was named Inventor of the Year by the Silicon Valley Intellectual Property Law Association in 2014, and was listed as one of the 20 most influential people in information technology by Data Communications Magazine, in both its 20th and 25th anniversary editions – the only person to be named in both. She also received an honorary doctorate from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden in 2000.
And she did all this in a field dominated by men, historically and contemporarily. The hurdles she cleared became abundantly clear from an interview she did in The Atlantic in 2014.
“I had a manager once who was wonderful in almost all ways…really smart, really well-meaning, but I always made him nervous. He admired the tall, pompous guys in the group, but he never quite knew what to make of me,” she recalled. “When I did something really clever, he was smart enough to understand its importance, but then he’d look at me all confused and say ‘how did *you* think of that?’ He meant well…” (read the full article online here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/03/radia-perlman-dont-call-me-the-mother-of-the-internet/284146/)
Radia Perlman defied norms, kicked down obstacles, and became a living legend in a field that demands nothing short of genius out of its top minds. We’re proud to share her story with all of you today.