The 2015 Marconi Prize, considered the pinnacle honor in the field of communication and information science, will be awarded to Professor Peter T. Kirstein, whose tireless advocacy and pioneering technical contributions to computer networking helped establish and expand the Internet in Europe and many other parts of the world. The $100,000 prize will be presented to Kirstein at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London on Oct. 20, 2015.
“What he brought back to the UK was the buzz of designing the very early Internet”
The Marconi Prize is given each year to one or more scientists and engineers who – like radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi – achieve advances in communications and information technology for the social, economic and cultural development of all humanity. Honorees have included scientists whose breakthrough innovations underlie every aspect of modern communications and have contributed to many other fields of technology as well.
“While he may not be as well known here in the U.S., Peter is often recognized as the ‘father of the European Internet,’” says Marconi Fellow Vint Cerf, co-inventor of TCP/IP protocol and an early collaborator with Kirstein. “But that phrase understates his contributions in the field of computer networking and in the area of protocols or systems for specific purposes. For the past 40+ years, Kirstein has made persistent contributions to the practical workings, adoption and application of the Internet worldwide.”
Kirstein’s education and early career helped shape a man uniquely suited to the task of internationalizing the Internet. Growing up in Britain, he attended UCLA in Los Angeles, Cambridge University and Stanford University where he obtained his Ph.D. He then joined CERN in Geneva, spending four years as an accelerator physicist, after which he served the US General Electric Corporate Research Centre in a post in Zurich. “Fluency in at least three languages was required; this really allowed me to maintain a very international focus,” he says. Charged with looking into things that might interest GE, he reactivated his earlier interests in computer and communications technology, convinced that these fields were the areas of the future.
A frequent visitor to the US during this period, he met Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf and Larry Roberts, whose work was instrumental to the development of the Internet in the U.S. He was deeply involved as the very early Internet took shape. In 1967 he returned to the U.K. taking a senior position at the University of London Institute of Computer Science. He joined University College London (UCL) in 1973 as Professor of Computer Communications Systems, becoming the first head of the Computer Science Department in 1979.
“What he brought back to the UK was the buzz of designing the very early Internet,” says Jon Crowcroft, Marconi Prof. of Computer Science, Cambridge University.
Kirstein’s relationships with numerous researchers at top U.S. research institutions involved in expanding the ARPAnet served him well as the ARPAnet extended connections from the U.S. to Norway. Kirstein, working with Robert Kahn, facilitated the connection of ARPAnet to University College London in 1973.
Kirstein also participated in an ARPA packet satellite research project that brought several other European sites into the system. This project involved multiple ground stations in Europe and the U.S. In November 1977, when researchers in Northern California first used TCP/IP to link the ARPAnet, SATNET and a packet radio wireless network, Kirstein was on the UK end of the line.
As the first ideas for the Internet emerged, Kirstein became involved immediately. Thus he was responsible for the first implementation of TCP/IP in Europe. Many European policy leaders were dubious about adopting TCP/IP, which by 1983 had been officially rolled out across the ARPAnet. However the success of Kirstein’s project was instrumental in drawing other Europeans into the Internet orbit, in the face of strong competition from Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) enthusiasts.
“Peter was instrumental in most of the major European projects—he got things done,” says Philip Treleaven, Professor of Computing, UCL. “Without a doubt he has done more than anybody else in Europe.”
Sir Eric Ash, a Marconi Fellow and former Rector of Imperial College, says, “Peter Kirstein has had an enormous influence on first, the acceptance and then the development of packet switching and then the Internet in the UK, Europe and beyond. Creating the first European node of the ARPAnet at University College was a key step towards its wider acceptance. At this distance, it is hard to remember and envisage that this process was far from automatic! It faced passive and even active opposition. Peter Kirstein and his celebrated group at University College provided the catalysts that enabled what is arguably the key development of the 20th century to become so dominant in Europe.”
In the 1990s, Kirstein turned his efforts to making the Internet truly international, serving with Cerf on a UN committee set up to create a network in India. He proposed that they create regional networks, rather than country-by-country, through NATO. They traveled to Kurdistan shortly after 9/11 and started a Caucasian and Central Asia network (SILK). Kirstein ran the project mainly with funding from NATO, but he secured a contribution from the EC that was a unique occurrence.
“He has continued to contribute, both architecturally and with implementation, to a variety of applications, including email, network interconnection and currently, the Internet of Things,” says Robert Kahn, a Marconi Fellow who co-invented TCP/IP with Vint Cerf and currently heads the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI). “As a professor at UCL, he has mentored engineers who have gone on to make many useful contributions to this space. He’s been a capable interlocutor between EU and US defense department initiatives. He’s helped commercialize the technology, and he’s been one of the pioneers to push the boundaries of the communication paradigm much further. Quite simply, he is a giant in his field.”
Kirstein is a Fellow in the Royal Academy of Engineering, of the British Computer Society (Distinguished Fellow), Institute of Physics, Institution of Electrical Technology, as well as a Senior Member in the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. He received the ACM SIGCOMM award and the IEE senior award - both in 1999. In 2002 he was made an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Birthday Honors list in June 2003, the same year he received the Internet Society's Postel Award. In 2006 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award Medal for Exceptional Contributions to the development of the Global Internet of the Royal Academy of Engineering and became an Honorary Fellow of UCL. In 2012, Kirstein was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society.