By Tom Still
MADISON — Al Gore has been inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. So has Wisconsin’s Larry Landweber.
I’m betting you know all about Gore, the former vice president and U.S. senator who is occasionally skewered on late-night comedy shows for once saying he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” In truth, Gore actually made essential political contributions to the Internet during its formative years.
I’m also guessing you know next to nothing about Landweber, who along with Gore and 31 others made up the inaugural class of the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame, announced in late April in Geneva, Switzerland.
Landweber’s story speaks to Wisconsin’s legacy of expertise in computer sciences and networking – as well as the need to keep innovating at a time when global competition might erase the unique American advantage that came with being the cradle of the Internet.
Although reserved about his contributions to what may be the modern world’s most disruptive technology, Landweber was inducted in the hall of fame’s “Innovator” category for his work in two major areas. The first was the creation of CSNET, which broadly linked university research programs for the first time. The second was for blazing pathways – sometimes, one connection at a time – that truly globalized a hodgepodge of national networks.
“I didn’t ‘invent’ a particular thing, but I view my role at that time as providing a bridge between the research and the creation of larger-scale networks,” Landweber said. “To a great degree, it was all about providing proof of concept.”
A professor in the UW-Madison Department of Computer Science, Landweber’s first networking project was TheoryNet in 1977. A few years later, working on behalf of a consortium of universities, he proposed creation of CSNET to link university computer science programs that weren’t a part of Arpanet, a Defense Department network. Funded by the federal government in 1981, CSNET linked more than 180 universities around the world within three years and served as the predecessor to NSFnet (the National Science Foundation network), which was a backbone for the larger Internet.
“This gave NSF the confidence to put together a network for super-computers to use the Internet,” Landweber said. “If there had not been a CSNET, it’s likely there would not have been an NSFnet, and perhaps even not an Internet.”
Landweber’s other role was that of an international Internet evangelist. In the 1980s, he helped establish the first network gateways between the United States and countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
“Beginning in 1982, I decided the Internet really needed to be global. So I started arranging for everyone in the world who I could identify as building a national network to meet in the summer,” Landweber said.
Called the International Academic NetWorkshops, these gatherings began in Oslo in 1982 with about 30 participants and grew to hundreds over time.
Landweber charted the growth of the Internet in a way that would seem quaint to today’s “digital natives,” but it was akin to desktop-to-desktop exploration at the time.
“I would ping people in other countries where there were signs of some kind of network activity,” he said. His website at http://pages.cs.wisc.edu/~lhl/ contains connectivity maps that chart the year-by-year growth of various national networks, serving as a historical guide to the Internet’s growth.
“It was an exciting time, but it was also a time of a lot of foment in the networking community,” Landweber said. “It was not at all clear in 1980 that the Internet was going to be the winning technology… It took some doing to turn it into the international standard.”
Landweber’s work didn’t stop with the early days of the Internet. He continues to advise governments at home and abroad on what will happen next, with past and present ties to Internet2, the GENI Project, the Internet Society and more. He’s also worked with companies large and small, including startups, and remains a leading advocate for making sure Wisconsin’s network connections and capacities are world-class.
On his induction in the Internet Hall of Fame, Landweber described it as “quite an honor, but also quite daunting.” Then again, he also remembers days in the 1980s in which some people viewed him as just another Comp Sci professor with a crazy idea.
“I would go to parties, start talking and people would excuse themselves to get a drink or hors d’oeuvres,” he joked.
Party killer no more, Dr. Lawrence H. Landweber is in the Internet Hall of Fame. And so is that Al Gore fellow.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org