Professor Peter Kirstein wins 2015 Marconi Society Prize

10 April 2015

Peter Kirstein paintingThe 2015 Marconi Prize will be awarded to Professor Peter T. Kirstein, the first head of UCL Computer Science, and the reason UCL was an early connection to the Internet’s ancestor, the ARPAnet. Professor Kirstein’s tireless advocacy and pioneering technical contributions to computer networking helped establish and expand the Internet in Europe and many other parts of the world. The $100,000 prize will be presented to Kirstein at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London on October 20th, 2015.

The Marconi Prize is given each year to one or more scientists and engineers who achieve advances in communications and information technology for the development of all humanity. Existing fellows include scientists and engineers whose breakthrough innovations underlie every aspect of modern communications and many other fields of technology.

“While he may not be as well known here in the U.S., Peter is often recognized as the father of the European Internet,” says Marconi Fellow Vint Cerf, co-inventor of TCP/IP protocol, joint receiver of the inaugural QE prize for engineering and an early collaborator with Kirstein. “But that phrase understates his contributions in the field of computer networking and in the area of protocols or systems for specific purposes. For more than 40  years, Kirstein has made persistent contributions to the practical workings, adoption and application of the Internet worldwide.”

 Kirstein attended UCLA in Los Angeles, Cambridge University and Stanford University where he obtained his Ph.D. After working for CERN in Geneva as an accelerator physicist, he worked for the US General Electric Corporate Research Centre. Looking into things that might interest GE, he focused on computer and communications technology and met Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf and Larry Roberts, whose work was instrumental to the development of the Internet in the U.S. Kahn and Cerf are now honorary fellows of UCL. All were deeply involved as the very early Internet took shape.

In 1967 he returned to the U.K. taking a senior position at the then University of London Institute of Computer Science. He joined University College London (UCL) in 1973 as Professor of Computer Communications Systems, becoming the first head of the new Computer Science Department in 1979. As the ARPAnet extended connections from the U.S. to Norway, Kirstein worked with Kahn to connect the ARPAnet to University College London in 1973. This was achieved despite the last minute impounding of the equipment by HMRC: Prof Kirstein signed over the departmental yearly budget as a guarantee and the machine was released.

The UK’s early adoption of Internet working was cemented in 1976 when Prof Kirstein set up an e-mail for Queen Elizabeth II to inaugurate the UK network. In the first use of email by a head of state, and possibly the only network status update sent by a monarch, her Majesty informed every user of the ARPAnet of the availability of a compiler in Malvern, Herefordshire.

As the first ideas for the Internet as we know it emerged, Kirstein became involved immediately. He was responsible for the first implementation of TCP/IP, the fundamental protocol underpinning information transfer on the Internet, in Europe. Many European policy leaders were dubious about adopting TCP/IP, which had many competing standards. The success of Kirstein’s projects was instrumental in drawing other Europeans in.

Sir Eric Ash, a Marconi Fellow and former head of department at UCL Electronic and Electrical Engineering, says, “Peter Kirstein has had an enormous influence on first the acceptance and then the development of packet switching and then the Internet in the UK, Europe and beyond. Creating the first European node of the ARPAnet at [UCL] was a key step towards its wider acceptance. At this distance, it is hard to remember and envisage that this process was far from automatic! It faced passive and even active opposition. Peter Kirstein and his celebrated group at University College [UCL] provided the catalysts that enabled what is arguably the key development of the 20th century to become so dominant in Europe.”

In the 1990s, Kirstein turned his efforts to making the Internet truly international, serving with Cerf on a UN committee set up to create a network in India. He proposed that they create regional networks, rather than country-by-country, through NATO. They traveled to Kurdistan shortly after 9/11 and started a Caucasian and Central Asia network (SILK). Kirstein ran the project mainly with funding from NATO, but he secured a contribution from the EC that was a unique occurrence.

Kirstein continues to be an active member of in the UCL Systems and Wireless Networking Group. He still campaigns for the adoption of new international standards for communication, and is currently pushing for the adoption of IPv6, a new protocol which would expand the number of locations on the Internet.

“He has continued to contribute, both architecturally and with implementation, to a variety of applications, including email, network interconnection and currently, the Internet of Things,” says Robert Kahn, a Marconi Fellow who co-invented TCP/IP with Vint Cerf and currently heads the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) in the US. “As a professor at UCL, he has mentored engineers who have gone on to make many useful contributions to this space. He’s been a capable interlocutor between EU and US defense department initiatives. He’s helped commercialize the technology, and he’s been one of the pioneers to push the boundaries of the communication paradigm much further. Quite simply, he is a giant in his field.”

Kirstein is a Fellow in the Royal Academy of Engineering, of the British Computer Society (Distinguished Fellow), Institute of Physics, Institution of Electrical Technology, as well as a Senior Member in the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. He received the ACM SIGCOMM award and became an IEEE Senior Member in 1999. In 2002 he was made an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Birthday Honors list in June 2003, the same year he received the Internet Society’s Postel Award. In 2006 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award Medal for Exceptional Contributions to the development of the Global Internet by the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2012, Kirstein was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society. 

Announcement of the award has been welcomed across UCL:

Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research), said: “Peter’s experimentation, innovation and application over more than four decades at UCL have hugely increased the inter-connectedness of people worldwide. We take great pride in providing a research environment in which the best minds can bring their expertise to bear on the critical issues and opportunities facing humanity. It is no exaggeration to place Peter on a par with fellow UCL pioneers such as Sir William Ramsay, Sir Ambrose Fleming, Francis Crick, Peter Higgs and Alexander Graham Bell.”

Professor Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of the UCL Faculty of Engineering Sciences, said: “This signal and richly deserved recognition marks the substantial achievement of Peter Kirstein who has consistently shown great foresight, leadership, technical skill and political nous to realise great strides forward in communications and networking. We are all very proud to have him as our colleague.”

The prize will be presented to Professor Kirstein at a ceremony at the Royal Society in London on 20 October 2015.

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