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The Passing of Dr. Jon Postel

1998-10-20 07:15:20

It is with deep regret that I report the passing of Dr. Jon Postel.  Jon
was a pioneer and a leader whose death will be felt far and wide.  Vint
Cerf was kind enough to share this, and I would like to forward it on
to everyone.

Allen Gwinn

October 17, 1998


Vint Cerf

A long time ago, in a network, far far away, a great adventure took

Out of the chaos of new ideas for communication, the experiments, the
tentative designs, and crucible of testing, there emerged a cornucopia of
networks. Beginning with the ARPANET, an endless stream of networks
evolved, and ultimately were interlinked to become the Internet.

Someone had to keep track of all the protocols, the identifiers, networks and
addresses and ultimately the names of all the things in the networked
universe. And someone had to keep track of all the information that
erupted with volcanic force from the intensity of the debates and
discussions and endless invention that has continued unabated for 30
years. That someone was Jonathan B. Postel, our Internet Assigned
Numbers Authority, friend, engineer, confidant, leader, icon, and now, first
of the giants to depart from our midst.

Jon, our beloved IANA, is gone. Even as I write these words I cannot
quite grasp this stark fact. We had almost lost him once before in 1991.
Surely we knew he was at risk as are we all. But he had been our rock, the
foundation on which our every web search and email was built, always
there to mediate the random dispute, to remind us when our documentation
did not do justice to its subject, to make difficult decisions with apparent
ease, and to consult when careful consideration was needed. We will survive
our loss and we will remember. He has left a monumental legacy for all
Internauts to contemplate. Steadfast service for decades, moving when
others seemed paralyzed, always finding the right course in a complex
minefield of technical and sometimes political obstacles.

Jon and I went to the same high school, Van Nuys High, in the San Fernando
Valley north of Los Angeles. But we were in different classes and I really
didn't know him then. Our real meeting came at UCLA when we became
a part of a group of graduate students working for Prof. Leonard Kleinrock
on the ARPANET project. Steve Crocker was another of the Van Nuys crowd who
was part of the team and led the development of the first host-host
protocols for the ARPANET. When Steve invented the idea of the Request for
Comments series, Jon became the instant editor. When we needed to keep track
of all the hosts and protocol identifiers, Jon volunteered to be the Numbers
Czar and later the IANA once the Internet was in place.

Jon was a founding member of the Internet Architecture Board and served
continuously from its founding to the present. He was the FIRST individual
member of the Internet Society I know, because he and Steve Wolff raced to
see who could fill out the application forms and make payment first and
Jon won. He served as a trustee of the Internet Society. He was the
custodian of the .US domain, a founder of the Los Nettos Internet service,
and, by the way, managed the networking research division of USC
Information Sciences Institute.

Jon loved the outdoors. I know he used to enjoy backpacking in the high
Sierras around Yosemite. Bearded and sandaled, Jon was our resident
hippie-patriarch at UCLA. He was a private person but fully capable of
engaging photon torpedoes and going to battle stations in a good
engineering argument. And he could be stubborn beyond all expectation. 
He could have outwaited the Sphinx in a staring contest, I think.

Jon inspired loyalty and steadfast devotion among his friends and his
colleagues. For me, he personified the words "selfless service."
For nearly 30 years, Jon has served us all, taken little in return, indeed
sometimes receiving abuse when he should have received our deepest
appreciation. It was particularly gratifying at the last Internet Society
meeting in Geneva to see Jon receive the Silver Medal of the International
Telecommunications Union. It is an award generally reserved for Heads of
State but I can think of no one more deserving of global recognition for
his contributions.

While it seems almost impossible to avoid feeling an enormous sense of
loss, as if a yawning gap in our networked universe had opened up and
swallowed our friend, I must tell you that I am comforted as I contemplate
what Jon has wrought. He leaves a legacy of edited documents that tell our
collective Internet story, including not only the technical but also the
poetic and whimsical as well. He completed the incorporation of a
successor to his service as IANA and leaves a lasting legacy of service to
the community in that role. His memory is rich and vibrant and will not
fade from our collective consciousness. "What would Jon have done?" we
will think, as we wrestle in the days ahead with the problems Jon kept so
well tamed for so many years.

There will almost surely be many memorials to Jon's monumental service to
the Internet Community. As current chairman of the Internet Society, I
pledge to establish an award in Jon's name to recognize long-standing
service to the community, the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award, which is
awarded to Jon posthumously as its first recipient.

If Jon were here, I am sure he would urge us not to mourn his passing but
to celebrate his life and his contributions. He would remind us that there
is still much work to be done and that we now have the responsibility and
the opportunity to do our part. I doubt that anyone could possibly
duplicate his record, but it stands as a measure of one man's astonishing
contribution to a community he knew and loved.

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