Piano and Protocols: The Story of Inventor Radia Perlman

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Piano and Protocols: The Story of Inventor Radia Perlman

Network engineering and music are two disciplines that seem worlds apart.

One involves maintaining the connectivity of computer networks while the other organizes sound across instruments. At a surface level, it seems there are few points of intersection. In actuality, the two fields have much more in common than what is typically realized.

One engineer in particular has used her aptitude for science and the arts to push the boundaries of invention. NIHF Inductee Radia Perlman breaks the mold of what a “typical” inventor’s story looks like and proves that there is no single path to success. Thanks to an upbringing that encouraged her to explore different interests, she developed the ability to approach engineering in the same way she approached music: with a dedication to understanding the bigger picture.

Perlman grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of two engineers. Her father worked on radar while her mother was a computer programmer, and although she always excelled at math and science, Perlman says she also had an affinity for other subjects. “I was interested in artsy things,” she explained. “I loved classical music and played piano and French horn. I also loved writing, composing music and art.” At one point, she considered giving up on piano, until an elementary school chorus teacher chose her to play for the school choir. To this day, she enjoys playing as an accompanist for others.

taking a physics class, a teaching assistant asked her if she’d like to be a programmer for a project he was working on. After telling him that she didn’t know how to program, he responded by saying, “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m asking you. You’re obviously bright, so I’m sure you can learn.”

Music and programming both require the ability to learn a new “language,” and Perlman’s study of music paralleled her study of programming concepts. She was able to master the technical aspects of program design in the same way that she learned to combine a scale of notes into a composition. While still an undergraduate, Perlman worked as a part-time programmer writing system software for MIT’s Logo Group and even created the Toddlers Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System (TORTIS) to help teach children about computer programming.

Perlman observes children using the TORTIS Button Box, circa 1974-76. (Photo courtesy of Radia Perlman)

She stayed at MIT to earn her master’s degree in math, though the experience was not easy for her. As a shy student, Perlman struggled to find a thesis adviser and found herself unable to enjoy graduate school. Eventually, a friend suggested she join a group at BBN Technologies designing network protocols. It turned out that she loved the work, and 10 years later she returned to MIT to complete her doctorate in computer science.

In 1980, Perlman joined Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to design routing for DECnet, a network protocol developed to help computers better communicate with each other. Perlman described this opportunity as “the perfect job in the perfect place at the perfect time.” It was at DEC that she made her defining discovery: the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). STP configures Ethernet networks to deliver data and avoid loops. The development of STP has been critical to the successful growth of the internet, enabling technology that can create large networks with hundreds of thousands of nodes over a large area.

In the excitement of completing the STP algorithm, Perlman channeled her nervous energy into writing a poem about it.

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