Internet Pioneers Win First-Ever Queen Elizabeth Prize For Engineering

Mar 18, 2013
Originally published on March 18, 2013 4:54 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Engineers build the world as we know it. They invent the devices with which we approach the world. And today, five of them were jointly awarded the first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, Louis Pouzin, Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreesen were acknowledged for their work creating the Internet. Vinton Cerf accepted his award via the Internet at today's news conference in London.

VINTON CERF: Since we turned the system on on January 1, 1983, 30 years ago, it has exploded in terms of its applications, not the least because of the work of Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreesen and their colleagues. Finally, I have to tell you that this is like waking up from a really exciting dream and discovering the geeks are winning.


CERF: So thank you.

SIEGEL: Well, joining us now is the creator of the prize, or I should say one of the creators of the prize. Lord Browne of Madingley, formerly known as just John Browne when he was the CEO of BP, welcome to the program once again.

LORD BROWNE OF MADINGLEY: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, was creation of the Internet a no-brainer for the achievement to be honored first?

MADINGLEY: No, there are plenty of great engineering triumphs and feats, but this one stood out as being the one which has done the most, I think, for present-day humanity. It's done some extraordinary things for the world.

SIEGEL: Why not one laureate? Why not decide on one person to receive one prize?

MADINGLEY: Well, because all great engineering feats are actually about teamwork, and I think all of them would say that they were - even these five were the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of other great engineers who made it all possible. But this award, of course, was for the Internet and for the World Wide Web and for the first browser that made it all possible to make it work for ordinary people.

SIEGEL: There is a question as to whether engineers need a prize of this sort of or whether success in engineering is in its own ample reward. The five winners will share a million pounds. I looked up, for example, Marc Andreessen's Wikipedia biography, and it describes him as, I quote, "An American entrepreneur, investor, software engineer and multimillionaire." Doesn't Vinton Cerf's observation that the geeks are winning seem by now to be self-evident?

MADINGLEY: Well, I think, first of all, this is about honoring excellence in order to inspire others to be excellent. And, of course, many people, much as the Nobel Prize, too, don't actually keep the money themselves. They give it to their research departments or to charities, which are in line with what they stand for, what they believe in engineering or the use of the Internet and so forth.

SIEGEL: As for honor, though, Vinton Cerf's - I've been on Wikipedia a lot, as you can hear - his bio there notes: His contributions have been acknowledged and lauded repeatedly with honorary degrees and awards that include the National Medal of Technology, the Turing Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And the list of awards in Bob Kahn's bio includes those awards as well as several others. They've been honored all over the place.

MADINGLEY: Well, but this is the first time they've had the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. And while I don't want to imitate the Nobel Prize, it is, I think, writing almost wrong in that there is no recognition on a global basis for engineering, and this is the recognition.

SIEGEL: I wonder given your emphasis on teamwork and giving the first award to five computer scientists, engineers, could you imagine an award to an institution, to the modern-day equivalent of Bell Labs in its heyday, for example?

MADINGLEY: Well, we've specifically ruled that out. We've said in the end, we needed to cite who are the leaders who've made it all possible. And I believe that is still possible to find even in today's complex world, and I think that we can do.

SIEGEL: Well, Lord Browne of Madingley, John Browne, thank you very much for talking with us about today's launch of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

MADINGLEY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.