Kahn said he was driven by the goal of enabling networks to communicate regardless of their individual hardware and software configurations.
On a recent bus trip to the United Nations, Bill Hunter, director of international outreach, asked a simple question about technology and ended up with an opportunity to invite one of the inventors of the Internet’s protocols to Lehigh.
“I was leading a group of students and teachers from Allentown Central Catholic High School to the UN as part of the LU/UN Partnerships Program,” he said. “We were discussing how students use technology, and a teacher informed us that her brother in-law was one of the inventors of the Internet.”
The brother in-law turned out to be Robert Kahn, who collaborated four decades ago with computer scientist Vinton G. Cerf to invent the TCP/IP Internet protocol suites.
Kahn visited Lehigh earlier this month to give a lecture titled “Past, Present and Future of the Internet.” The event was co-sponsored by the department of computer science and engineering; the LU/UN Partnership; Teaching, Learning and Technology; LTS (Library and Technology Services); and the Global Union.
In his presentation, Kahn described the evolution of the Internet from the 16-bit ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) to a global technological necessity.
“When we started working on the Internet,” he said, “no one thought it was a good idea.” Curiosity leading to innovation
Kahn earned a Ph.D. from Princeton, worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories and was appointed to MIT’s electrical engineering faculty. In 1972, he joined the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) and started considering the possibility of connecting networks.
Seniors in his field warned him that there was no future there, but Kahn could not suppress his intellectual curiosity. He was convinced of the need for an open-architecture network model, where any two networks could communicate regardless of their individual hardware and software configurations.
“It was an interesting research challenge,” he said. “I wanted to know how to get computers, networks, protocols and applications to work together.”
After several years, Kahn’s research led to the development of the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, which allowed for the routing of data packets and Internetworking, also known as the Internet.
Emma Diehl ’13, an English major, said it was inspiring to learn how Kahn’s interests, though discouraged by his superiors, ultimately transformed the world.
“Before going to the lecture, I knew literally nothing about the creation of the Internet,” said Diehl. “To hear Kahn explain the intricacies of the inception of creating networks was unreal.”
Kahn said he never foresaw the positive impact the Internet would have on society. The Web, for example, has allowed businesses to transcend national boundaries and reach customers across the globe. It has helped bring about the globalized world we live in.
Where will it take us in the future?
“No one can imagine all the kinds of innovations that are likely to show up,” said Kahn. “We know how important wireless has become, we know things are moving towards faster and higher speeds, and we know social networking is taking over, but that’s about it.”
Kahn urged students to take advantage of the technological foundation that has been established.
“The future of technology lies in the hands of every individual sitting in this room,” he said. “What was done in the past is simply the starting point.”
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