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Jon Postel

Last Edit: 10/04/17

Jonathan Bruce Postel, who preferred to be known as Jon Postel, was a computer scientist and pioneer of the Internet. Postel was a 'leading light' in developing, maintaining and governing the architecture of the Internet. Postel was an American citizen who was born on the 6th of August, 1943. Jon Postel studied at the same high school as Vint Cerf: Van Nuys High, San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles. Postel studied for a degree at UCLA in the 1960's, and studied for a ph.D (in computer science) at UCLA in the early 1970's. Postel was a graduate student at UCLA in the late 1960's, and was a member of Leonard Kleinrock's team that installed the first ARPANET node. When the host-host protocols were created for ARPANET, Postel volunteered to become the "Numbers Czar" - a term Vint Cerf used to describe Postel's role - that involved managing hosts and protocol identifiers. Steve Crocker created the Request for Comment (RFC) document system to document the host-host protocols of ARPANET; Postel was soon installed as the editor-in-chief of the RFC system. Postel's editorship of the Request for Comment (RFC) document system and his "Numbers Czar" role would continue from the early 1970's until his death in 1998. It should be noted that Postel did not only edit RFC documents, he also authored and co-authored hundreds of RFC documents.

Jon Postel, once referred to as the god of the internet, highlighting a technical aspect of his work.
(Pictured: Jon Postel)

It is unclear when Postel's informal role as ARPANET's "Numbers Czar" evolved into his leadership of the organisation: the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). It was sometime in the late 1970's to the early 1980's. Postel, alongside other ARPANET pioneers, acknowledged that the system in place to create and manage host names was not fit for purpose by the early 1980's. Postel played a crucial role in the development of the Domain Name System (DNS); a system that would map Internet numerical addresses to domain names. By 1985, Postel's IANA would manage the root zone of the DNS; the highest zone of the DNS, which had authority over the DNS and resulted in Postel having control over the namespace of the Internet. Postel was sometimes referred to as an "Internet god", due to management of it's two namespaces: IP and DNS.

Postel was a founding member of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) in the early 1980's; this organisation that was responsible for designing the network protocols of the Internet. When the Internet Society was created in 1992 to provide leadership for the IAB - and other Internet organisations - Postel was the first person to become a member; Vint Cerf said Postel and Steve Wolff were involved in a race to submit and pay their membership subs and Postel won.

In the year of his death, 1998, Postel was involved in a controversial incident involving the root zone of the Internet. Postel emailed 8 out of the 12 regional root nameservers, and instructed them to reconfigure their servers to "pull" addresses (root zone file) from IANA's server instead of the Network Solutions root zone server. The US government ordered Postel to undo the change, which he did, and it is believed that advisors to the US president threatened Postel that "You'll never work on the Internet again". Postel died later that year due to the after effects of a heart operation. Some critics have claimed that Postel attempted to "hijack" the Internet, whereas others have stated it was simple a test of the DNS root authority.

In 1998, to celebrate Postel's contribution to the Internet, Vint Cerf (co-inventor of TCP/IP) wrote an obituary: suitable published as an RFC document (2468) the obituary was titled "I REMEMBER IANA" and included the following epithet "We will survive our loss and we will remember. He has left a monumental legacy for all Internauts to contemplate". Vint Cerf described Postel as a "selfless servant", who loved the outdoors and was the Internet's "hippie patriarch". The Internet Society has an annual award given to the individual who has made an "outstanding contribution to the communications community" and the award is named: the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award.