You can call Radia Perlman a pioneer in computer science, an visionary in networking, and an innovator in teaching children programming – but don’t call her the “Mother of the Internet.”
As a child, Perlman was inspired by her parents; her father worked on radar and her mother was a programmer. She liked logic puzzles and found math and science classes in school fascinating. She also loved classical music and played piano and French horn. When Perlman enrolled in MIT in the late 1960s, she was one of about 50 women in a class of 1,000. There were so few other women around, she said in an interview, that she often didn’t even notice the gender imbalance—it became normal to her to never see another woman.
While at MIT she undertook an Undergraduate Research Opportunity at the (then) MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Working under the supervision of Seymour Papert, she developed a child-friendly educational robotics language called TORTIS (“Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System”). During her research in the mid-70s, children as young as 3 used this language to program an educational robot called Turtle. Perlman obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Mathematics and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from MIT.
Perlman is most famous for her invention of the spanning-tree protocol (STP), which is fundamental to the operation of network bridges, which are physical connections that enable computer networks. She also made large contributions to many other areas of network design and standardization, such as link-state routing protocols, which she invented to correct some of the shortcomings of spanning-trees. Each of these inventions was critical to making the internet possible and are the reason she is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of the Internet”. When asked why she dislikes the title, she explained that while she made fundamental contributions to the infrastructure of the internet, no single technology really caused the Internet to succeed. She also doesn’t like the title’s emphasis on gender. Nonetheless, Perlman was inducted to the Internet Hall of Fame for her contributions and is an IEEE Fellow.
Suggested By: Brian Maloney
Written by Nicole Hutchison