The George C. Marshall International Center on Saturday honored internet pioneer Vinton G. Cerf with its inaugural Innovation Award during a March 9 gala at the Army-Navy Country Club in Arlington.
The award is designed to recognize leaders, who like Marshall, had a profound impact on how we live our lives.
The center’s mission is to preserve the legacy of Marshall by interpreting and propagating its relevance today through community and international education programs and events, and by continuing to restore and preserve his home, The Marshall House and gardens, in Leesburg.
Cerf was a Stanford professor in 1968 when he joined a team at what is today the nation’s Defense Advance Research Project Agency to explore ways to allow communication among military computers. Conventional alternatives proved unworkable—switching systems were too slow and AT&T’s suggestion of connecting every computer with every other computer through its wires was too expensive and impractical. By 1974, he and Bob Kahn developed the Transmission Control Protocol that would form the foundation of the internet.
“It shows what happens when you put an innovator in an innovation culture. What you get is magic,” said current DARPA Director Steven H. Walker, who delivered the keynote address. “By inventing the basics of the internet, Vint set the next three decades in motion, which is the creation of the internet and the early adoption of its impact has been the core storyline for American economic and technical supremacy for these last four decades. From healthcare to design to science to the delivery of goods, Vint and the DARPA project changed every aspect of our world.”
“One can argue what is the greatest invention of modern time, the light bulb, the radio, the transistor, the internet—it’s a great debate, but no matter where you fall the internet is always part of that discussion,” Walker said.
Joe May, the vice chairman of the Marshall center, presented the award. “Dr. Cerf’s innovation was in creating a language which connected the computers of the world and allows them to communicate rapidly and efficiently with each other. Gen. Marshall’s innovation was changing how defeated nations were treated after a major conflict. Both innovations produced profound positive impacts on the world as we know it,” he said.
Cerf also highlighted Marshall’s contributions.
“You talk about innovation, you have to talk about the uniqueness of the Marshall Plan. This was simply totally counterintuitive. We had just fought a terrible war in Europe and in Japan. Many, many people were killed on both sides. Normally, after a conflict of that scale, the winning nation or nations would demand reparations, would suppress activities in those countries which had been defeated. What did George Marshall decided to do? He decided to rebuild those countries that had been largely destroyed. How do you get there? You get there because there is real value in rebuilding what had been destroyed.”
“However, I do have to point out something. First, we had to win. We shouldn’t forget that,” he said. “It’s not clear what would have happened if we had failed, but I can guarantee you there wasn’t any Adolf Hitler plan that looked anything like the Marshall Plan,” Cerf said. “That tells us we need to build the capability so that if we are forced to conflict again that we will succeed and, if fact, it may be even smarter to build a capacity that is so significant that nobody wants to fight with you at all. That’s a heck of a good way to keep peace.”
Cerf thanked the center for selecting him to receive its first innovation award and for working to remind people of Marshall’s work.
“We need more people like that,” he said.