Graduate alumnus Robert Kahn, founder of the internet, awarded Madison Medal

Written by
Advancement Communications
Nov. 7, 2022

Princeton University will present one of its top alumni awards to Robert Kahn, a co-inventor of the fundamental communication protocols at the heart of the internet. 

Kahn, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1964, will receive the James Madison Medal. Established by the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni (APGA), is named for the fourth president of the United States, who is considered to be Princeton’s first graduate student. It is presented each year to celebrate an alumna or alumnus of the Graduate School who has had a distinguished career, advanced the cause of graduate education or achieved an outstanding record of public service.

Kahn, has served as an adviser to Princeton’s Department of Computer Science, spoken on several Reunions panels, contributed to the University’s conference celebrating the legacy of Alan Turing (who earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton in 1938), and participated in many discussions on campus about the internet and its evolution. On campus in 2014, he told students, “Nobody really thought it was a good idea back then, in terms of [business] opportunities,” recalling a world in the early 1970s when most computers were huge, shared mainframes, and PCs did not exist.

At Princeton, Kahn was advised by Bede Liu, professor of electrical and computer engineering, emeritus.

In 2007, he established the Robert E. Kahn *64 Professorship at Princeton to support the teaching and research of a tenured faculty member in computer science or electrical engineering, currently held by Michael Freedman.

The award will be presented on Alumni Day, to be held on campus on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

Madison Medalist

Kahn and computer scientist Vinton Cerf created the protocol to transmit data reliably between separate computer networks, and to do so quickly, effectively and routinely. Kahn called it “internetting.”

By developing a common digital language for computers across networks, Kahn and Cerf prepared the way for a technological revolution with the design of software known as the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP.

At the time, Kahn worked at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Prior to that, he had been employed at a small engineering firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he worked on ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), an experimental computer network sponsored by DARPA.

Today Kahn is chairman, CEO and president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), which he founded in 1986 after a 13-year term at DARPA. CNRI is a nonprofit organization providing leadership and funding for research and development of the National Information Infrastructure, also known as the information superhighway.

“When Robert Kahn and his colleagues pieced together a set of protocols and procedures for connecting computers in the 1970s, they laid the groundwork for a revolutionary leap in how society thinks, works and communicates,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “Robert’s scientific contributions have shaped the internet, and his engagement with our Department of Computer Science has helped to establish Princeton as a leader in the field.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Kahn earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York. After receiving his Princeton Ph.D., he worked on the technical staff at Bell Laboratories and then became an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He took a leave of absence to join Bolt Beranek and Newman, where he was responsible for the system design of ARPANET, the first packet-switched network. In 1972 he moved to DARPA and subsequently became director of DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office. While director, he initiated the U.S. government’s Strategic Computing Program, the largest computer research and development program ever undertaken by the federal government.

In addition to receiving an honorary degree from Princeton in 1998, Kahn is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2013 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 1997 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and the 2001 Charles Stark Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering.

Woodrow Wilson Award winner

Gen. Christopher Cavoli, a member of the Class of 1987 who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology, will receive the Woodrow Wilson Award. Cavoli, a 35-year career Army officer, assumed duties as Commander, U.S. European Command, and as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe in July 2022. The Wilson Award is given annually to an undergraduate alumna or alumnus whose career embodies the call to duty in Wilson’s 1896 speech, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” A Princeton graduate and faculty member, Wilson served as president of the University, governor of New Jersey and president of the United States.