Radia Perlman, who wears her long gray hair parted straight down the middle and speaks with a beatific, smiling calm, really hates it when people call her the “Mother of the Internet.” Still, she can’t seem to shake the title. Radia, like a lady radio.
In the early ’70s, Radia was one of only fifty women in a class of nearly a thousand at MIT. In coed housing, she was the resident female, an oddity. She never saw any other women in her math classes. When she did glimpse one in a campus crowd, she’d just think, “Gee, that person looks out of place” before remembering how she might look out of place, too, if only she could see herself.
At Radia’s first programming job, the male programmers she worked with would “do things intended to be friendly and to impress me,” like sitting around her as she worked, pointing out everything she was doing wrong. The dynamic made her self-conscious to the point of diverting her professional path: as an undergraduate, she designed a system for teaching programming to children using tactile controllers and buttons, inadvertently creating the field of tangible computing, but she gave it up because she worried that having “cute little kids” around would mean she’d never be taken seriously as a scientist.
Although Radia was just an undergraduate, she stuck out for staging a feminist action at the AI lab, where she worked alongside those nosy male programmers. “She was busy freeing the johns,” says Elizabeth Feinler, who ran the central information office of the early Internet, the ARPANET, and crossed paths with Radia in those days. “The women had to go down a couple of floors to go to the john and the men’s john was on the same floor as the computers. I thought that was an interesting concept, liberating the johns.” Radia tells me it was nothing so revolutionary, she just put signs up, “saying something about, ‘this bathroom does not discriminate based on gender, height, or any other irrelevant properties.’ ” She was the only woman in the lab, but they still made her take the signs down. Many years later, when she was a distinguished fellow at Intel, she’d truthfully tell visitors that she had her own private restroom. They’d be impressed, until one saw her walk into the women’s restroom. “The more senior you get, the fewer women there are,” she says.
Radia’s mother had been a computer programmer in the age of punch card machines, and wrote one of the earliest assemblers while working for the government. When Radia was a kid, it was her mother who helped her with math and science homework, but Radia didn’t inherit her love of hardware. “I wanted nothing to do with computers,” Radia says. She preferred logic puzzles and music, and although she excelled in school, she secretly fantasized that a boy would beat her in math and science someday. “My plan was to fall in love with him and marry him,” she says. That never happened. Instead, she was first in her class.
Radia’s very first contact with computers, in high school, was through an extracurricular programming class a dedicated teacher had arranged for her. She discovered that all her fellow classmates had been taking radios apart since they were seven, and they knew fancy computer words like “input.” She felt like she’d never catch up. “I never took anything apart,” she says. “I would have assumed I would break it, or get electrocuted.” In her introductory computer science course at MIT, the lab returned her first program with an angry note. She’d done something terribly wrong, sent the computer into a loop, and wasted reams of paper. To this day, Radia calls herself a last adopter, and although she did eventually crack programming, she gave it up in the 1970s. She has been told, again and again, the same myths we’re all told about what it takes to be a good engineer: taking electronics apart from a young age and focused, borderline obsessive attention to technical details. “Certainly, people like that are very valuable,” she tells me, “but they’re not able to do the things that someone like me can do.”