Radia Perlman

Women in STEM
Radia Perlman

Birth: January 1, 1951

Specialty: Computer Science

Major Contributions:

Created child-friendly language TORTIS

Invented spanning-tree protocol

Internet Hall of Fame

Image: Wikimedia

You can call Radia Perlman a pioneer in computer science, a 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 making them more robust and easier to manage. To correct some of the shortcomings of spanning-trees she invented the TRILL protocol which allows Ethernet to make optimal use of bandwidth.

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


Radia Perlman: Don’t Call Me the Mother of the Internet (The Atlantic)

Wikipedia: Radia Perlman

The Internet Hall of Fame: Radia Perlman

She Thought It: Radia Perlman

See Also:

Why IEEE Fellow Radia Perlman hates technology (IT World)

Q&A: Sun’s Radia Perlman speaks out on being stuck with IP, new life for spanning tree and her answer to data security: the ephemerizer (Network World)

Who is the ‘Mother of the Internet’? (How Stuff Works)

Radia Perlman ’73, Mother of the Internet (MIT Admissions)