Metcalfe's column: Postel wins Net plumber of the year award

Jonathan Postel is my pick for InfoWorld's Internet Plumber of 1998 award.

For three decades, Jon was a steadfast steward of the Internet. On October 16, 1998, while passing his baton to the new Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Jon died following heart surgery.

I hadn't found time recently to thank Jon for the Internet. Please join me in thanking him now.

Jon and I met in 1970 while we were graduate students working on the ARPAnet, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) Network. Jon was at the University of California--Los Angeles working under Professor Leonard Kleinrock with fellow fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf and Steve Crocker.

In 1972, Crocker, then at ARPA, asked Jon and me to become ARPAnet "facilitators". Sporting huge beards, jeans and sandals, we started visiting military bases to teach various clean-cut colonels about packet switching.

Our ARPAnet missions were undertaken towards the bitter end of the Vietnam War. To the besieged military, Jon and I (twice Jon's size) probably looked like Thunderdome's Master-Blaster. We were escorted out of the officers club at Tinker Air Force Base because of our appearance.

Shortly thereafter, our paths diverged. Jon went to the Information Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California, where, after 21 years, he was director of the Computer Networks Division.

Over the years, Jon's role at the technical core of the burgeoning Internet grew. In 1969, he'd started editing the ARPAnet's Request for Comments series, through which the Internet Engineering Task Force still makes standards today. Jon was still editing when he died. In 1981, Jon became what was later called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), responsible for the Internet's DNS, Internet addresses, and protocol conventions -- Internet plumbing. Jon was the first member and a trustee of the Internet Society. And much more.

Jon was the kind of person who makes people like me feel opinionated, greedy, and loud. He was quiet, patient, and, well, stubborn, too. But the only difference between being stubborn and being a visionary is whether you are right -- and he was, more often than not.

One of my hobbies is tweaking the fogies who built the Internet. They, too, often forget that their baby has grown up and left home. I've often wanted to throw a party, thank the fogies for building the Internet, and send them off into well-deserved retirement. I never meant to include Jon among those retirees, and I'm sorry I never told him that.

On October 7, 1998, Jon gave written testimony before the US House of Representatives. He defended the new Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is to be the new nonprofit, nongovernmental, international organisation that will take over the responsibilities from Jon's US-funded IANA.

Jon had been working to build consensus about ICANN among the Internet's diverse and often shrill stakeholders. The controversy turned ugly. Jon, of all people, was accused of various conspiracies. I would have stormed out in disgust, but Jon persisted, as usual, in working to ensure the Internet was taken care of. Nine days later, Jon was dead. Some lay Jon's death at the feet of those who attacked ICANN.

This InfoWorld Internet Plumber of the Year award is intended as a gentle message of support in Jon's name to ICANN's initial board: Esther Dyson (interim chair), Michael Roberts (interim CEO), Geraldine Capdeboscq, George Conrades, Greg Crew, Frank Fitzsimmons, Hans Kraaijenbrink, Jun Murai, Eugenio Triana, and Linda Wilson.

ICANN -- do as Jon would have done. Keep open, act wisely, and get the job done. Thank you for taking on the difficult task of passing Jon Postel's Internet baton one more time.

Internet pundit Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973 and founded 3Com in 1979. Send e-mail to or visit

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