Jonathan B. Postel Service Award > A Ten Year Tribute to Jon Postel: An Internet Visionary

A Ten Year Tribute to Jon Postel:
An Internet Visionary

a man with a long grey beard wearing glasses smiling

The 16th of October 2008 marked ten years since the death of Jon Postel. In honour of Jon, Internet Society gathered reflections and quotes on his life, his work, and his legacy.

Jonathan Bruce Postel was born on 6 August 1943. When he died – tragically young at 55 – his mourners launched a squadron of paper planes soaring in honour of the man they saw as a technical genius; a man who quietly did what was necessary in support of the Internet to help ensure its advancement for good.

“Jon was someone who dedicated his efforts to advancing the Internet,” said Lynn St Amour. “He took on roles of great responsibility. While some might say he held power, he didn’t see it or treat it this way and he always exercised his responsibilities with utmost care, openness, and integrity.”

Jon Postel was not so well known by the general public, yet in his appearance – bushy grey beard, long hair, and sandals – he was the most recognisable archetype of an Internet pioneer. Beyond appearances though, his vision, determination, and efforts were absolutely crucial in creating and shaping the Internet we now all use. He was the real thing.

He was known as a modest, private man. Indeed the biography on his own web site contained only eight sentences, barely hinting at the significance of his many roles and contributions. He studied at UCLA, ultimately gaining his Ph.D. in computer science in 1974. Those studies led to his early involvement in the ARPANET project, the packet switching network from which the modern Internet evolved.

Jon Postel’s technical influence can be seen at the very heart of many of the protocols which make the Internet work: TCP/IP determines the way data is moved through a network; SMTP allows us to send emails; and DNS, the Domain Name Service, help people make sense of the Internet. He contributed to these and many other technologies.

Jon was the network’s Boswell, but it was his devotion to quality and his remarkable mix of technical and editing skills that permeate many of the more monumental RFCs that dealt with what we now consider the TCP/IP standards. Many bad design decisions were re-worked thanks to Jon’s stubborn determination that we all get it “right” – as the editor, he simply would not let something go out that didn’t meet his personal quality filter. There were times when we moaned and complained, hollered and harangued, but in the end, most of the time, Jon was right and we knew it.

And someone had to keep track of all the information that erupted with volcanic force from the intensity of the debates and discussions and endless invention that has continued unabated for 30 years. That someone was Jonathan B. Postel, our Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, friend, engineer, confidant, leader, icon, and now, first of the giants to depart from our midst.”

Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google, Co-founder, Internet Society

“He was our rock,” said Vint Cerf, shortly after Jon’s death. He was “the foundation on which our every web search and e-mail was built.”

The standards and practices of the Internet’s infrastructure are contained in the Request For Comment (RFC) document series. For almost three decades, Jon Postel was RFC Editor, shepherding drafts through the open consensus processes that characterise Internet development efforts.

For many, Jon’s greatest contribution to the Internet was his role in creating the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). This task – which he volunteered to take on and which he at first performed manually – provided the stability the Internet’s numbering and protocol management systems needed for it to grow and scale. Jon performed this role from its inception until his death. To many people, he was the IANA. Again in the words of Vint Cerf, he kept “track of all the protocols, the identifiers, networks and addresses and ultimately the names of all the things in the networked universe”.

For the Internet Society, Jon holds another important place in history. He was one of Internet Society’s founders, the first individual member, and he served as a Trustee from 1993-98. One of his most famous statements was “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others”. Although its original context was as a “robustness rule” for TCP implementations, its sentiment has come to be seen as a central tenet of Internet development.

Each year, Internet Society salutes Jon’s legacy by making the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award to an individual who has made outstanding contributions in service to the data communications community.

Jon Postel, in the words of those who knew him:

He has left a monumental legacy for all Internauts to contemplate. Steadfast service for decades, moving when others seemed paralyzed, always finding the right course in a complex minefield of technical and sometimes political obstacles.
Jon was a friend, teacher, co-trustee, sage, and guide. We mourn his passing and celebrate his having been. He left us far before his time having accomplished far more than most people can know.
Jon’s wise counsel often helped me personally, and the IAB, to choose the right course. It is infinitely sad that we will never hear his calming voice again.
Brian Carpenter
Those of us who came into the Internet after its beginning inherited not only a wonderful idea and technology, but also a wonderful society, sets of values and ways of working which are only too rare elsewhere. Jon Postel stood at the centre of this, not only in his work – the service he performed as a public trust, but also for the things which, in doing that, he stood for. The concept that some things belong to everybody. Doing things because they are the right thing to do. Tolerance of different opinions – and so on – now known as the Internet culture. His death leaves us with a heavy responsibility to continue that tradition.
Humanity lost a defender today. Against the squalid backdrop of human nature, one man tested his mettle against the forces of chaos and entropy, without regard for his own personal safety, and gave our civilization some extra time to get itself organized before advancing along the track of history. As the glue that held the Internet together for its first 30 tumultuous years, he will be sorely missed.
The greatest achievement of Jon Postel is that he created a stable system capable of surviving him. Today, the Internet is still working. I can surf the Web, send email, register a domain name, or perform any other critical function. Dr. Postel passes away, the Internet survives. There can be no greater tribute. As long as the Internet stands, it will remain a monument to his life’s work.
My children and grandchildren will be reading about Jon Postel in the same way we read about Edison. It is Jon and his colleagues that created the revolution that will do so much for humankind.
If the Net does have a god, he is probably Jon Postel.
The Economist
Jon was the real thing, a true giant. . . He had everyone’s trust and confidence. They knew what he was doing was essentially right.
His vision of a world drawn together through a vast common communications network has become a reality, and his genius and leadership were the key to its realization.
He really was the most powerful person on the Net – absolutely. He came by that power legitimately, as the only person who could command the respect and loyalty of the whole community.
Though his life was brief, Jon Postel made a critical contribution to human progress.
Bill Clinton
A ten-year toast seems in order. Here’s to Jonathan B. Postel, a man who went about his work diligently and humbly, who served all who wished to partake of the Internet and to contribute to it, and who did so asking nothing in return but the satisfaction of a job well done and a world open to new ideas.

Information in Memory of Jon Postel:

  • Jon Postel Center (external source, hosted by Information Sciences Institute, The University of Southern California)

(Editor’s note: The first three links point to the archived content from previous website versions)