Princeton honors internet pioneer Robert Kahn at Alumni Day

Written by
Emily Aronson, Office of Communications
Feb. 27, 2023

Princeton gave top alumni honors to four-star general Christopher Cavoli and internet pioneer Robert Kahn on Saturday, Feb. 25, during an Alumni Day program that showcased the many ways alumni and students exemplify being “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

Kahn, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1964, was given the James Madison Medal. Kahn has been called a “father of the internet.” He and computer scientist Vinton Cerf created the protocol to transmit data reliably between separate computer networks, and to do so quickly, effectively and routinely.

“A forward-thinking visionary whose work ushered in not only a technological revolution but also a new way of communicating, Dr. Kahn has worked tirelessly to connect us all through a common language,” Dean of the Graduate School Rodney Priestley said in his introduction.

Today, Kahn is chairman, CEO and president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), a non-profit focused on research and development of the National Information Infrastructure, also known as the information superhighway.

Much of Kahn’s career was spent at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and also at a small engineering firm that worked on ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), an experimental computer network sponsored by DARPA. His many honors include the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“My career has involved many years in public service supporting research, but I’ve also had the privilege of helping to create innovative information infrastructure for the research community, for the military and ultimately for all of society,” Kahn said.

8 people in suits stand or sit smiling at the camera, with Robert Kahn front and center

Robert Kahn, front row-center, poses with faculty from computer science and electrical and computer engineering.

He added: “My advisers at Princeton and the educational experience that was afforded to me played a key role in that journey, as it reinforced and greatly expanded my ability to think critically about technology and systems.” At Princeton, he was advised first by John Thomas and finally by Bede Liu.

These skills helped him problem solve and innovate, Kahn said. He went on to share highlights from the early days of the internet’s development as well as his work on the Voice over Internet Protocol and the Digital Object Architecture project.  

“Thank you for enabling me to call Hong Kong last night using WhatsApp on my cell phone,” one alumnus said to Kahn during a question-and-answer session, as the audience broke out in applause.

Kahn was also recognized for his contributions to Princeton, as Priestley noted his “profound impact” as an adviser to the Department of Computer Science, which has helped establish the University as a leader in the field.

“I really appreciate receiving the James Madison medal from Princeton and I look forward to many more years of productive interactions with the University and its faculty and students,” Kahn concluded. 

Editor's note: This article was adapted from a longer story on the Princeton University homepage.