Pioneering the Internet with Bob Kahn

Bob Kahn

"New capabilities emerge just by virtue of having smart people with access to state-of-the-art technology."

- Bob Kahn

Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet," Bob Kahn is the co-inventor of the architecture and basic protocols of the internet.

Sharing the title with American computer scientist Vint Cerf, they had received numerous awards and commendations, both nationally and internationally, in connection with their work on the internet.

Early Life

Robert Elliot Kahn was born on December 23rd, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York City. He is the son of Beatrice Pauline and Lawrence Kahn, a high school administrator. Kahn's rise to prominent internet pioneer was not preordained. He made it happen. Born during the final years of America's Great Depression, Kahn's family moved from their Brooklyn neighborhood to Flushing, Queens in 1953.

Kahn was a precocious child, completing his high school’s accelerated program in three years, moving on to college at a young age. Kahn recalls that an unspecified heart condition his mother developed as a young child partially determined the course his life took. Due to her illness, and his father's occupation as a teacher he had to stay close to home.

After receiving a B.E.E. degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York in 1960, Kahn earned M.A. degree in 1962 and Ph.D. degree in 1964 from Princeton University. After finishing graduate school, he worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories, and then became an assistant professor at MIT.

Kahn contacted Peter Elias, the chairman of MIT's engineering department, after they had obviously made their fall commitments. Elias invited him down to get to know him and was impressed. Few weeks later, he sent Kahn a note notifying him that he found a way to support him and would love to have him join the faculty in the fall. Kahn began to work at BBN Labs and turned attention toward computer networking. The project really began to take off when he started working with Frank Heart. Though the first model was unsuccessful, it was a start of something yet to come.


While working on a satellite packet network project, Bob Kahn came up with the initial ideas for what later became the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which was intended as a replacement for an earlier network protocol, NCP, used in the ARPANET.

The idea came when Kahn wonders about how computers on ARPANET communicate uniformly with each other without realizing what is in between. In September 1973, Kahn and Cerf presented a paper outlining their ideas to the International Networking Group. In May 1974, they complete their paper entitled, "A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication." They described a new protocol they called the transmission-control protocol (TCP). The main idea was to enclose packets in "datagrams." These datagrams were to act something like envelopes containing letters. The content and format of the letter is not important for its delivery. The information on the envelope is standardized to facilitate delivery. Gateway computers would simply read only the delivery information contained in the datagrams and deliver the contents to host computers. Only the host computers would actually "open" the envelope and read the actual contents of the packet. TCP allowed networks to be joined into a network of networks, or what we now call the internet.

While working on this, Kahn played a major role in forming the basis of open-architecture networking, which would allow computers and networks all over the world to communicate with each other, regardless of what hardware or software the computers on each network used.

Kahn set four goals for the design of what would become the TCP:

Network connectivity. Any network could connect to another network through a gateway.
Distribution. There would be no central network administration or control.
Error recovery. Lost packets would be retransmitted.
Black box design. No internal changes would have to be made to a network to connect it to other networks.
Cerf joined him on the project in the spring of 1973, and together they completed an early version of TCP. Later, it was separated into two separate layers, with the more basic functions being moved to the internet Protocol (IP). The two together are usually referred to as TCP/IP, and are the basis for the modern internet.

Kahn later became the Director of IPTO and started the United States government's billion dollar Strategic Computing Initiative, the largest computer research and development program ever undertaken by the U.S. federal government.

After thirteen years with DARPA, in 1986, he left to found the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), a nonprofit organization which is intended to provide leadership and funding for research and development of the National Information Infrastructure. In 1992, Kahn co-founded with Vint Cerf the Internet Society, to provide leadership in internet related standards, education, and policy. In 2009 Kahn held the position of Chairman, CEO and President of CNRI.

Further Works

Bob Kahn serves on the board of directors for Qualcomm.

He is also a former member of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, a former member of the Board of Regents of the National Library of Medicine and the President's Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure.


Bob Kahn is well recognized for his works, especially when it concerns the TCP/IP and the internet. Kahn was awarded the SIGCOMM Award in 1993 for "for visionary technical contributions and leadership in the development of information systems technology", and shared the 2004 Turing Award with Vint Cerf, for "pioneering work on internetworking, including .. the Internet's basic communications protocols .. and for inspired leadership in networking."

Kahn has received numerous awards and honors from his work and dedication. These include a number of honorary degrees, including doctorates, from universities worldwide.

Further awards and honors:

  • AFIPS Harry Goode Memorial Award.
  • The Marconi Award.
  • The ACM SIGCOMM Award.
  • The President's Award from ACM.
  • The IEEE Koji Kobayashi Computer and Communications Award.
  • The IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal.
  • The IEEE Third Millennium Medal.
  • The ACM Software Systems Award.
  • The Computerworld/Smithsonian Award.
  • The ASIS Special Award and the Public Service Award from the Computing Research Board.
  • The Secretary of Defense Civilian Service Award.
  • The 1997 National Medal of Technology.
  • The 2001 Charles Stark Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering.
  • The 2002 Prince of Asturias Award.
  • The 2004 A. M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery.
  • The 2003 Digital ID World award for the Digital Object Architecture as a significant contribution to the digital identity industry.
  • The Townsend Harris Medal from the Alumni Association of the City College of New York in 2005.
  • The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • The C & C Prize in Tokyo, Japan.
  • The National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2006.
  • A Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 2006.
  • The 2008 Japan Prize for his work in "Information Communication Theory and Technology" with Vint Cerf.
  • A Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.
  • Honorary Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) in May 2006 with Vint Cerf.
  • The Harold Pender Award in February 2010 with Vint Cerf.
  • Honorary doctor of Saint Petersburg National Research University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics.
  • 2012 Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society.
  • 2014 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering with Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Marc Andreessen and Louis Pouzin.