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Leaders in Technology, and Also Jewish

December, 2005

Among the fourteen recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the country’s highest civilian honor) were two Jews: Alan Greenspan and Robert E. Kahn. Greenspan’s claim to fame is well known, but it is Kahn who is arguably one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century. After all, he invented the Internet. No, really. In 1972, while working for ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency – a branch of the Defense department devoted to technological innovation) Kahn demonstrated the ARPANET – a network of 40 different computers at the International Computer Communication Conference, showing how computer networks of diverse design could connect with one another by using common protocols. While working on this, he played a major role in forming the basis of open-architecture networking, which would allow computers and networks all over the world to communicate with each other, regardless of what hardware or software the computers on each network used. Fellow Freedom medal recipient Vinton G. Cerf joined him on the project in the spring of 1973, and together they created an early version of TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), the technology used to transmit information on the modern Internet. The two championed their ideas in the computer community for decades. Eventually their patchwork-quilt assemblage of networking covered much of the world.

Kahn’s achievement is significant, not only for the way it has dramatically transformed society – everything from commerce to culture, government to Google (also co-invented by a Jew, by the way, – Sergey Brin) – but also because of the core values that this innovation represents: openness, and interconnectivity. As Mitchell Kapor (inventor of Lotus 1-2-3, the first “killer app,” and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) puts it: “One of [the Internet]’s important characteristics is that new networks, host systems, and users may readily join the network -- the network is open to all. The openness (in all senses) of the Internet reflects, I believe, the sensibilities and values of its architects.”

At nearly the same moment that Robert E. Kahn was “fathering” the Internet, two other Jews, Richard Frenkiel and Joel Engel (who, like Kahn, received his B.E.E. from the City College of New York), were busy developing the basic network architecture used worldwide in cellular telephony; in essence, becoming the “fathers” of the cell-phone - another example of a device that relies on, and inspires, an interconnected-web of open communication. Rather than rely on discreet radio channels, which drastically limited the amount of portable phones that could be used at any time, Engel and Frankel divided the land into discreet coverage areas, or “cells,” each providing service until the caller entered the next region, where they would be handed off to another cell. Engel and Frenkiel’s work led to a series of proposals to the FCC in the 1970s, and became the foundation for the cellular systems that have revolutionized mobile communications and made today’s cellular services readily available.

I decided to mention these noteworthy inventors this month, not only because of the proximity to the Presidential Medal of Freedom Awards (or because Robert Kahn’s birthday is December 23rd), but also because these values of openness and connectivity shed a wonderful light on our upcoming Feast of Lights. There is a rabbinic parable that speaks of a king who challenged his three sons to see who could fill his royal treasury to its greatest capacity. One son filled it with jewels, another even more tightly with sand, but the son who inherited his father’s kingdom was the one who simply lit a candle in the middle of the room – filling the entire space with light. We repeat the miracle of Hanukkah every time we use one candle to light all the others – the flame leaps from wick to wick regardless of the type of candle used (oil, wax, tallow), and the original flame is not diminished even as the overall light increases. Perhaps the name of this candle can provide us with a clue as to its power: in Hebrew, shamash means caretaker. Light’s speed may be constant, but its capacity to bring joy is dependant on those who are willing to let it fill their lives by sharing it with others.
Type: Article