Saluting the industry’s digital dads

In honour of Father’s Day, we’ve tracked down a handful of those in the computer and network industries who have become known as technology fathers.

Some you have undoubtedly heard that The father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, recently was knighted by the Queen of England. Sir Timothy is working on his second child — the Semantic Web.

Some you probably haven’t. The father of Multi-protocol Label Switching is Cisco Systems Inc.’s Yakov Rekhter.

Then there’s Gary Thuerk, the father of spam. As a Digital Equipment sales representative in 1978, he sent out a sales pitch to several hundred names on an early ARPANet mailing list. Thuerk says he sold US$10 million worth of Digital gear as a result of the mailing but the federal agency running ARPANet threatened to “throw me in jail” if there was ever a repeat.

The father of unsolicited bulk e-mail continued his career at Digital and now Hewlett-Packard Co., but became something of a deadbeat dad when it came to his demon spawn. Then a couple of years ago, a trade publication wrote about the origins of spam, mentioned Thuerk and his paternal instincts kicked in.

These days Thuerk is basking in the notoriety. He does interviews and can be spotted at the HP booth at various trade shows handing out autographed pictures, and occasionally people ask him to pose with them for a photo. “I was the first one to do it, and I’m proud of it,’’ he says. Of course, Thuerk isn’t unaware that most people don’t like spam — he made us promise not to print his e-mail address.

When it comes to identifying the father of the Internet, Vint Cerf’s name (not former U.S. presidential candidate Al Gore’s) pops up most often, but Cerf graciously shares the credit. “It is a misnomer to name any one person the father of the Internet — in truth it has had the benefit of many parents’’ dating to the ARPANet project in the 1960s. He adds, “Bob Kahn and I did the basic work defining the Internet architecture and its fundamental protocols, now called TCP/IP. So I do not think of myself as THE father of the Internet but it is fair to say that I am one of them.’’ Cerf now works with NASA on the interplanetary Internet.

Xerox Parc alumnus Alan Kay is often referred to as the father of the PC and the father of object-oriented programming. Kay also graciously shares parentage with his co-workers Bob Taylor, Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker. “I’ve sometimes thought of myself as the ‘midwife’ of personal computing, trying to birth the baby,’’ Kay says. He also credits Doug Engelbart’s NLS system as one of the first you could call a “personal computing system,’’ although it was implemented on a time-sharing mainframe.

Speaking of Engelbart, you might know him as the father of the mouse. But he is also credited with a number of other innovations, including early hypertext. A two-way videoconference he set up in 1968 with staffers is sometimes referred to as the “mother of all demos.” He was at one end and the staffers were 31 miles away.

Like Engelbart, David Bradley is a serious scientist who is best known for a relatively modest invention that he came up with early in his career at IBM Corp. Bradley is the father of Control-Alt-Delete (also known as the three-fingered salute), which he invented as a way to shut down a PC. He chose Control-Alt on one side of the keyboard and Delete on the other side so people wouldn’t accidentally turn off their machines if they hit a wrong key or two.

At a gathering on the 20th anniversary of the IBM PC, while sitting next to Bill Gates, Bradley said, “I may have invented Control-Alt-Delete, but Bill Gates made it really famous.’’ Many industry fathers tend to shy away from the spotlight. Stanford professor John Cioffi, the father of DSL, says, “That ‘father’ name is often applied to me by others, but I’ve never used it myself.’’

Ian Foster, the father of grid computing, takes a similar tack. “I find the term ‘gridfather’ embarrassing, and I never use it,” he writes. Others fight for what they see as their rightful place in history. Brent Townshend is the father of the 56K bit/sec modem and has filed multiple lawsuits to establish paternity. Bill Inmon has made a career out of being father of the data warehouse. He coined the term, wrote the first book and ran the first conference on data warehousing.

Sometimes inventors get ahead of the corporate marketing machines. If you look at Apple employee Tony Fadell’s Web site, it’s clear he considers himself father of the iPod. But Apple doesn’t let Fadell speak to the press, and an Apple Computer Inc. spokesman told us emphatically, “Tony Fadell is not the father of the iPod.’’ The PR people seem to have the upper hand — in a recent Newsweek story, Steve Jobs was described as “the man behind the iPod.’’

You wouldn’t think there could be any dispute over the fact that Linus Torvalds is the father of Linux. But you’d be wrong. The Microsoft-sponsored Alexis de Toqueville Institution recently published a paper questioning Torvalds’ parentage. To which Torvalds responded: “OK, I admit it. I was just a frontman for the real fathers of Linux, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.”

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