Alumnus Dave Farber, Internet Pioneer, Gifts Stevens with Computer Science Chair

10/16/2012

As new technologies continually change the ways we read, write, and communicate, Stevens has played a key role in the information age from the outset. This was the first U.S. university to require students to purchase and use personal computers. A Stevens graduate created the IMAP email protocol that allows email to be sent and received by users of different machines, languages and operating systems worldwide. Hundreds of Stevens alumni sit as chief technology officers and other top executives of some of the world's largest finance, medical and technology firms.

Only one man, however, answers worldwide to the moniker "Grandfather of the Internet" — a nickname earned for a career spent writing code and building the “backbone” that makes Internet search and communication possible today.

And he, too, graduated from Stevens.

Now David Farber '56, M.S. '61, is giving back in dramatic fashion to ensure that future generations of Stevens students will create the next computing breakthroughs through donation of a new faculty chair in Stevens’ Computer Science Department.

Farber, now living in the Philadelphia area, grew up in Jersey City, Union City and Saddle River, all in N.J., and attended Stevens because he liked the looks of its engineering programs.

"My father and I used to go into [New York] City often to buy electronics parts and build AM radios and other things," he recalls of his youth. "That's really where my interest in technology began."

At Stevens he studied electrical engineering and mathematics, taking a fateful internship in Washington, D.C., the summer following his junior year.

"I was working with the fellow who built the first transistorized analog computer," says Farber. "It was a phenomenal opportunity." While there, he computed the flow of neutrons in nuclear reactors.

Back at Stevens, Farber formed a team with other seniors and built a chemical analyzing computer — using huge, 3-foot-long punch cards for the data entry and relays for the logic — from scratch.

"Nobody taught us how to do it. We just figured it out," he remembers.

After graduating in 1956, Farber was recruited to join Bell Labs, where his projects over the next decade included helping to design the world's first electronic switching system for telephone switchboards; work as an author of SNOBOL, an early computer programming language still in use; and membership in a mathematics research group that did pioneering work in computing. Farber went on to work for RAND Corporation, Scientific Data Systems, and Xerox Data Systems before joining the University of California at Irvine as a faculty member in 1970.

That stint was the beginning of a decades-long journey through academia that would take him to the University of Delaware, the University of Pennsylvania, and Carnegie Mellon University. It was during this time that he and colleagues created the first global information highways — during an era when email, online search, and smart phones were still the dreamy stuff of science fiction books and futurists.

"I have always had excellent timing when changing jobs," he chuckles.

Around 1971 at UC Irvine, Farber and several colleagues hit on the idea of the distributed computer system (DCS): multiple microcomputers running software and sharing data and software with one another remotely, using pioneering “token ring” technology — an early forerunner of present-day “cloud computing.” At Delaware, then a major center of U.S. computing research, he and a team created CSNet and NSFNet, two networks that connected computer science and other university science departments nationwide for the first time.

Business interests quickly saw a profit opportunity in providing access to the new treasure trove of information, and researchers in other countries also rapidly began clamoring to join the networks. The idea took off, and NSFNet's infrastructure would soon form both the methodology for, and original physical backbone of, what we now know as the Internet.

That's how Farber picked up his nickname as "Grandfather of the Internet."

While the technological tools of his trade continue changing at almost blinding speed, Farber has turned from technical design to teaching, research, and advisement.

At Penn, he held the Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications in the Moore School while also holding joint appointments with the prestigious Wharton School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication and directing the university's research in high-speed networking. As current Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, he also holds appointments in that university's public policy school and its Department of Engineering and still teaches part-time.

Farber has advised U.S. Presidents, the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on issues like security, bandwidth, and privacy.

And he has made a considerable impact at Stevens, where he received an honorary doctorate in 1999 and still serves as a member emeritus of the Board of Trustees. Farber and his wife created the David & GG Farber Societal Impact Award in 2003, a prize annually conferred upon a Stevens graduating senior. In June 2012, Farber doubled the amount of funding available for the award with a second $50,000 contribution.

This September, Stevens announced a much larger gift from Farber: a $2 million-plus commitment to establish and fund a faculty chair for Stevens' growing Department of Computer Science, a chair named for Farber and his wife, who passed away in 2010. Farber will give $100,000 annually to create and fund the chair, and eventually convert his gift to an endowment that perpetuates the chair indefinitely.

"This gift is significant to the Institute and the School of Engineering and Science for several reasons," said Michael Bruno, dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering & Science. "First, it will provide the funding to recruit and support a world leader to enhance and expand the leading-edge research and education in our Department of Computer Science.

"It also affirms the confidence of Dr. Farber — one of the global leaders in the field — that Stevens can and will be a key player in working at the intersection of computer science and society.”

The gift is part of The President's Initiative for Excellence, Stevens President Nariman Farvardin's $30 million fundraising initiative to enhance scholarship support, faculty development and infrastructure improvement, and develop a public lecture series at Stevens.

"I had been thinking about this gift for awhile," explains Farber, who will assist in the selection of the chair, "and when President Farvardin began here at Stevens, it seemed like the opportune time to do it. It's becoming very important for computer science to pay attention to the impact of our field on society, which is profound.

"Now Stevens' CS department can become a leader both in computer science education and in the examination of the societal impacts of what we do."