Oral History Interviews with Pouzin and Other European Pioneers of Computer Networking

By Andy Russell (a winner of 2011 ACM History Fellowship)

I’ll never forget the day that I took my first ride on the Paris Metro. The ride itself was pleasant, but not nearly as memorable as my escort–none other than the 1997 ACM SIGCOMM Award Winner, Louis Pouzin. I traveled to Paris during the first week of April 2012 to conduct oral history interviews with Pouzin and other European pioneers of computer networking. The goal of this trip, funded by an award from the ACM History Committee, was to document European contributions to the field of computer networking–a field whose heritage is dominated by the American computer scientists who developed the Internet and one of its predecessor networks, the ARPANET. English-language histories of the ARPANET and Internet have tended to overlook the experiments conducted by European researchers, as well as the political and economic contexts in which these experiments took place. My goal was very simple: to build the documentary foundations, beginning with oral history interviews conducted in English (to complement the French-language histories written by Valerie Schafer and others), that would allow for a richer and more accurate understanding of what Europeans were doing in the 1970s and 1980s.

The oral history interviews, conducted over four days, included meetings with Tilly Bayard-Richard (secretary of French and international standards committees on “Open System Interconnection” or OSI); Marc Levilion (employee for over 30 years of IBM France and a leader of their OSI and other networking initiatives); Andre Danthine (professor emeritus at University of Liege, Belgium and ACM SIGCOMM Award Winner); Louis Pouzin (creator and leader of the French Cyclades networking research project); and the team that Pouzin recruited including Michel Gien, Jean-Louis Grange, Gerard Le Lann, Najah Naffah, and Hubert ZImmermann (yet another winner of the ACM SIGCOMM Award).

In the coming months I plan to transcribe the recordings of these interviews and donate the transcripts, thanks to the kind permission of the interviewees, into the oral history collection of the Charles Babbage Institute. The content of the interviews were too far-reaching to be adequately described here, but their overarching lesson can be summarized quite easily: Europeans–particularly the Cyclades team but also individuals such as Levilion, Danthine, and countless others–achieved great advancements in the scientific, political, and organizational aspects of networking. They worked with great collegiality and dignity, despite the occasional squabble and the presence of unfathomable technical and bureaucratic obstacles. Thanks to them, and thanks to the support of the ACM History Committee, future historians of computing and historians of the late 20th century will be able to tell richer and more complex stories.

was taken at a conference on April 3, 2012, organized by Valerie Schafer at the Institut des sciences de la communication du CNRS (ISCC) in Paris (see http://www.iscc.cnrs.fr/spip.php?article1613 for details). From left: Gerard Le Lann, Jean-Louis Grange, Michel Gien, Najah Naffah, Louis Pouzin, and Andrew Russell.

By Andy Russell (a winner of 2011 ACM History Fellowship)
College of Arts & Letters
Stevens Institute of Technology