“Mother of the Internet” (1951–Present)
Radia Perlman wasn’t always a fan of technology. Rather than a first-adopter of new gadgets, she’d consider herself a last-adopter, someone left kicking and screaming when given a new interface.
It’s this exact attitude that helped her cultivate her personal philosophy: that people shouldn’t have to understand technology in order to use it. She attributes her success to the fact that she doesn’t fit the “tinkering engineer” stereotype— instead, she focuses on simplifying the complicated and letting the machines do the work themselves.
Perlman’s career began in the 1980s at DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) when network infrastructure and security were just getting started. Her work centered on the creation of a distributed algorithm that could allow networks to self-organize in a scalable and robust way. The result of her efforts was the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) which transformed Ethernet technology by preventing network loops and redundancy in order to improve fault tolerance. Without it, network loops would cause slow, irregular internet connection or network failure. Perlman, a lover of literature and art, (in)famously wrote a poem for her boss describing the functions of STP.
In 2004, Perlman introduced TRILL (TRansparent Interconnection of Lots of Links). TRILL, a successor of STP, allows Ethernet to make more optimal use of bandwidth.
Since then, her status as the “Mother of the Internet” has been solidified through her contributions to public key infrastructure, data expiration, and distributed algorithms.
Perlman has received many honors in her field. In 2004, she was named Inventor of the Year by the Silicon Valley Intellectual Property Law Association. She was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014, the National Academy of Engineering in 2015, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in (2016). She’s worked for some of the largest technology and computer companies in the U.S. (such as DEC, Sun Microsystems IncDell, Intel) and gained hundreds of patents for her innovations.
More importantly, Perlman uses her success to encourage young women to participate in STEM. In an interview with Dell, she explains that the gender gap in technology is largely due to people not realizing that “there are plenty of opportunities to be artistic, help people and communicate with heart.” She also believes many “people think they would not be good at it because they don’t fit the stereotype of an engineer, namely someone that took things apart from a very young age.”
Perlman breaks that stereotype herself. As a pianist, she translates her own unique understanding of music and arts into her work with technology and network security. She reminds young people who don’t fit engineering stereotypes how valuable their creative perspectives are in this field.
Check out the Leahy Center’s blog to learn about more influential leaders in technology.
Written by Tanner Rubino ‘22 // Professional Writing