Cristen Conger

STEM Women Hall of Fame: The Mother of the Internet

Courtesy: The Atlantic
  • STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Radia Perlman
  • STEM Legacy: Writing the algorithm for Spanning Tree Protocol, that helped enable file sharing between computers.
  • Historical context: As is often the case with STEM Women Hall of Fame inductees (the highest STEM honor, really), Pearlman was a rare female student at MIT in the early 1970s, telling The Atlantic that she actually grew so accustomed to being a lone woman in class that "I'd have to remind myself that I was also that 'other gender'."

Radia Perlman hates being called the Mother of the Internet. So why am I calling her that? Because, frankly, it's a badass, attention-getting title, and more badass STEM women deserve such impressive, if personally loathed, nicknames. And besides, Pearlman eschews it because it's hyperbolic, as many people contributed to the Internet as we know it -- a distaste for Twitter-happy attention grabbing only makes her even cooler.

So if she didn't singlehandedly gestate and give birth to the web, who is this cool tech brain, and what exactly did she do? After earning her handy computer science PhD from MIT in 1988, Perlman went on to write the STP algorithm. Say huh? STP, or Spanning Tree Protocol, established the Internet's "basic traffic rules" by allowing computers to smoothly share data by a) creating redundant network links in case one link fails and b) disabling said redundant links when the active link works properly.

Oh, and one more reason Perlman isn't so jazzed on the "Mother of the Internet" title? She wrote STP in a week, so in terms of time investment, STP was kind of NBD.