Article - Issue 55, June 2013

Queen Elizabeth Prize Winners

Lord Alec Broers FREng FRS

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Chair of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation Lord Browne FREng FRS announces the award winners to the media in March 2013 in the presence of two of the awardees, Dr Robert Kahn and Louis Pouzin

Chair of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation Lord Browne FREng FRS announces the award winners to the media in March 2013 in the presence of two of the awardees, Dr Robert Kahn and Louis Pouzin

In March 2013, it was announced that the first winners of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering were five pioneering individuals whose creativity produced today’s internet communication system. They will come to London on 25 June to receive their awards from HM the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Lord Alec Broers FREng FRS, Chair of Judges of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, tells the story of how the internet innovators came to win the inaugural award.

In just 20 years, the internet has changed the way in which the world works. And yet the internet is so commonplace, few people realise that when they log on they are connecting to the largest engineered system ever built; a system that is a tribute to the ability of engineers to collaborate because its components are diverse and its hardware spread all over the globe. The judging panel were unanimous in deciding that it was a deserving first winner of this global prize which recognises and celebrates outstanding advances in engineering that have changed the world.

The prize winners each contributed important building blocks. However, it wasn’t just Dr Robert Kahn, Dr Vinton Cerf, Louis Pouzin, Sir Tim Berners-Lee FREng FRS and Marc Andreessen’s technical achievements that stood out. As the judges saw it, these were equalled by their foresight and generosity in sharing their work freely and without restriction.

The approach that these engineers took, and the open and universal standards that they promulgated, allowed the capabilities of internet-based communications to spread rapidly and to grow organically. Beyond their roles as ‘fathers of the modern internet’ over the past 30 years, the five engineers have also served as technical and political stewards of this revolutionary communications system as it has grown from its experimental phase to hosting over 50 billion pages of information today.

NETWORK OF NETWORKS

Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf and Louis Pouzin put the first pieces of the jigsaw in place when they came up with the protocols that allowed computers to talk effectively to one another. Sir Tim Berners-Lee provided the next piece when he devised a standard for sharing information. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Marc Andreessen developed a way of presenting that information that everyone could access.

Together, the Transmission Control Protocol and internet Protocol devised by Kahn, Cerf and Pouzin, Berners-Lee’s HyperText Mark-up language, and Andreessen’s Mosaic browser led to an information revolution that has been as significant as the industrial and agricultural revolutions. In little more than a generation, the internet has grown into a global giant with an estimated 2.5 billion users, yet its genesis resulted from a series of distinctly ‘local’ efforts to find ways of sharing information by connecting computers in different locations as a single network.

The scope of today’s internet could not have been envisaged in those early days when pioneers Kahn, Cerf and Pouzin applied their skills, on either side of the Atlantic, in developing the fundamental protocols that enabled internetworking to function effectively. Their work laid the foundations for a ‘network of networks’, as the internet has been dubbed, which has effectively shrunk the world by connecting billions of computer users. The trio were responsible for laying down the design and protocols that together make up the fundamental architecture at the heart of the internet.

Kahn and Cerf were still in the early stages of their computer science careers when they worked at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 1972, Kahn demonstrated the agency’s network, ARPANET, by linking 20 computers and sending between them a series of messages comprised of ‘packets’ of information that, thanks to their protocol, were reassembled on reaching their destination.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Louis Pouzin was leading a development team at the French Delegation a l’Informatique. The resulting CYCLADES network moved the technology a stage beyond the ARPANET design by making host computers – rather than the network itself – responsible for delivering data. CYCLADES, demonstrated in 1973, used ‘datagrams’ containing all the information required to route them between two machines. This delivered the distinct addressing that made it possible to reassemble data that might travel over different routes between different machines.

While each development helped to accelerate packet-switching (grouping all transmitted data into suitably sized blocks, called packets) and to develop more robust and reliable networks, Kahn and Cerf made the breakthrough that has allowed the internet to continue growing to its huge size and scope today. Their concept was to hide the differences between individual network device languages – or protocols – behind a common protocol. In 1974, they published a landmark paper describing Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), the most basic functions of which had, by 1978, formed the internet Protocol (IP). TCP/IP remains the conduit for interconnected networks on the internet and World Wide Web.

CREATING THE WEB

When Tim (now Sir Tim) Berners-Lee began to develop what became the World Wide Web, he was a young computer scientist not long out of university. After a spell designing software for typesetting, Sir Tim worked as a contractor at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. He was looking for a way for colleagues to share research documents. In 1980, he came up with a system based on ‘hypertext’. He demonstrated this by building a prototype, ENQUIRE, which went on to be the basis of the World Wide Web

Back in the UK, Berners-Lee accumulated experience in computer protocols and text handling before returning to CERN. While he did not invent hypertext, Berners-Lee did propose its use “to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will”.

In 1989, Berners-Lee published a landmark paper, ‘Information Management: A proposal’. He followed this up by creating the first web server and browser and writing the first web pages, which summarised the project. He did this without filing for patents or requiring royalties.

By 1991, the first website went online at CERN with the web address Info.cern.ch. Berners-Lee’s breakthrough was to link hypertext to the internet. He then went on to develop three technologies, a URL (Universal Resource Locator) to reference web resources; HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), the basis of data communication for the Web; and HTML (HyperText Markup Language), the main language used to create web pages and make information accessible via a web browser. These crucial developments made it easier to access web information.

In essence, Berners-Lee had devised the World Wide Web – an information-sharing model that is built on top of the internet – that allows us to use it in the way we do today. The web vastly extended the use of the internet beyond email and file transfer.

It was Berners-Lee’s vision for the system’s global accessibility that led to a network allowing any document – text, image, video and more – to link to any other document. As Director of the World Wide Web Consortium since 1994, Berners-Lee remains a guardian of the web and an evangelist for internet freedom and open data.

ONLINE SEARCHES

The fifth winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, American Marc Andreessen, was still a student at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois when Tim Berners-Lee was unveiling the World Wide Web as an open-standards, globally-accessible system. Andreessen identified the importance of a user-friendly means of searching for the rapidly-expanding volume of information online, and, along with co-workers at the NCSA, developed Mosaic, an effective and popular browser with integrated graphics that could operate on a variety of computers.

The Mosaic browser made the web accessible to everyone and triggered a huge number of applications unimagined by the early network pioneers. The browser became the final piece in the jigsaw that encouraged global society at large to access and use the World Wide Web. Within a few years, millions of users were gathering information from the web.

Andreessen went on to be a cofounder of Netscape (later sold to AOL) and Opsware (sold to Hewlett Packard). He is now partner in a major Silicon Valley venture capital company as well as serving on the boards of several computing companies, including Hewlett Packard, Facebook and eBay.

The QEPrize launched a Create the Trophy competition for young people aged 16 to 24, with the fi nalists’ designs prototyped using 3D printing. The winner was Jennifer Leggett, whose tree-like trophy design symbolises the growth of engineering and represents the way in which all areas of engineering are interlinked

The QEPrize launched a Create the Trophy competition for young people aged 16 to 24, with the fi nalists’ designs prototyped using 3D printing. The winner was Jennifer Leggett, whose tree-like trophy design symbolises the growth of engineering and represents the way in which all areas of engineering are interlinked

PRIZE BACKGROUND

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) was launched in November 2011 with a mission to identify, reward and celebrate an engineer, or engineers, responsible for an outstanding advance in engineering, that has proved of global benefit to humanity. Awarded every other year, the winner (or winners) of the £1 million prize, can be of any nationality

The QEPrize is the result of a growing realisation in the worlds of business, engineering and policy of the need for a pioneering initiative based in the UK to focus attention on engineering worldwide.

The QEPrize is funded by corporate donors. The prize funds are managed by the trustees of the QEPrize Foundation, an independent charitable company supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley FREng FRS. The Royal Academy of Engineering delivers the prize on behalf of the foundation.

The QEPrize aims to raise the international public profile of engineering and inspire new generations of engineers, particularly women, to take up the challenges of the future. It sets out to achieve this by celebrating stories of engineering success, and telling the stories of the individuals involved.

The vision for the QEPrize is ‘Create the Future’ and the ambition of the prize is to make engineering “the number one career choice for all young people”. Public engagement activities designed to realise this ambition are already in place and will be further developed over the next few years.

ENGINEERING RECOGNITION

The development of the internet has been so rapid that it is no exaggeration to say that anyone born today, or in the past two decades, is really a child of the internet. A third of the people in the world today use the internet and these five prize-winners continue to be its active guardians. And yet for all of this impact, and their continuing involvement in the internet, the Prize is the first recognition of their combined engineering achievements. These five visionary engineers, never before honoured together as a group, led the key developments that shaped the internet and web as a coherent system and brought them into public use. Cerf, when responding to the news that he was sharing the prize, exclaimed: “The geeks are winning”.

Professor Reinhard Hüttl, President of the German Academy of Science and Engineering and Scientific Director of the German Research Centre for Geosciences, who was one of the jury members, described the impact of the five engineers’ work on science, using the example of earth science, which, he said is no longer imaginable without the World Wide Web: “Modern early warning systems such as the Tsunami Early Warning System are based on an extremely fast data processing and, in particular, data transfer.” He went on to say, “But also the rapid development in modern geosciences is based … on the fact that huge data amounts are, nowadays, available globally and within a minimum of time for the science community worldwide.”

Berners-Lee set out to deal with just this sort of scientific challenge when he launched his work on the presentation of scientific data at CERN. Two decades on, the five winners of the prize have every right to be as amazed as anyone by how the internet has changed the way we live.

The award to the winners of the first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering says a lot about engineering. Unlike many other notable prizes, ‘breakthroughs’ in engineering aren’t just a case of a ‘eureka’ moment. You then have to make your contribution practicable and useful. This often takes as much creativity as the original research and requires a combination of different skills. Engineering is, by its very nature, a collaborative activity and the emergence of the internet and the web involved many teams of people all over the world. Kahn, Cerf, Pouzin, Berners-Lee and Andreessen all laid bricks in the foundations of what quickly became one of engineering’s most significant developments of modern times, an innovation that has spread more rapidly than any previous technological achievement.

More information is at http://qeprize.org

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