CERN Alumnus, David Garcia Quintas approached the Alumni Relations team some months ago with the idea of creating a podcast. Out of this idea is born the 'Chatting with Ben Segal' serial which you will find here on the CERN Alumni Network, in weekly installments.
Introducing Chatting with Ben Segal
I spent some years at CERN. During that time, I met Ben Segal while volunteering at a conference. At the time, he was very involved in the BOINC project. I started collaborating with him and the rest of the CERN folks involved. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch over the years. When some months back I suggested putting a piece like this together, he very kindly agreed, and so I present you all with a fascinating front-row seat through Ben’s eyes of the dawn of computing and the Internet —two of the main forces shaping the world we live in— as it unfolded across the world and at CERN.
The following was recorded in May 2019, at his residence in Vaud, Switzerland. It follows Ben, from growing up in post-World War II Manchester, UK (apparently as a swot), to his first job in 1958 building nuclear reactors, as well as the introduction of TCP/IP and the Internet to CERN in particular and to Europe in general.
Ben was inducted to the Internet Hall of Fame in 2014 for his “important role as an Internet promoter, spearheading the introduction of IP into a hostile Europe when it was not politically correct or career-friendly to do so there. European Postal Telegraph and Telecommunications Administrations and industry were opposed to these standards, and their use outside the laboratory was forbidden.”
Ben played a pivotal role in the development of the World Wide Web when he helped Tim Berners-Lee with design decisions and feedback on Tim’s early draft of what would become the WWW. Ben also introduced Tim to the idea of RPCs and UNIX socket programming, introduced to CERN alongside TCP/IP.
David Garcia Quintas.
Episode 1 - Who is Ben Segal
David: [00:00:00] Something that people don't usually talk about and I think is really important and relevant when talking to someone is where did you come from? You graduated in 1958 from the Imperial College in physics and mathematics but that doesn't tell me who Ben Segal was, growing up like in school, in high school. Well what kind of kid were you?
Ben: [00:00:19] So I was an only child and brought up without a father in my grandparents' house in Manchester. I was spoiled because I was the only boy. My mother worked which was unusual in those days: she had a profession - she'd been to university, the first in the family. I was what we would call in English in those days a "swot" that is someone who loved books. I had a copy of "The Children's Encyclopedia". It was like ten or twelve volumes which I would just love to read.
Ben: [00:00:56] So I was a very studious kid but I also loved taking my bicycle apart and putting it together and that sort of thing.
Ben: [00:01:03] So I was a fairly typical only child I think. At school I was happy at school. It was a very good school. I was very well treated. The only problem was that they wanted so badly for me to win a scholarship to Cambridge or Oxford. This was the holy grail for British schools at that time.
Ben: [00:01:23] And so they sent me a year early to Cambridge to sit this exam and it was a disaster. It was freezing cold. It was Christmas. I hated it. The interview went very badly as well so I only got only got a place, not a scholarship.
Ben: [00:01:42] So I went back to school. The Headmaster said: "That's perfect you know, next year you'll get the scholarship". And I said: "No, I don't want to get there and I'm not staying". And anyway at that time if you didn't get a scholarship to University you had to do your military service. So I wasn't going to accept the simple place anyway - two years of military service was long. So, to cut a long story short I took the exam against the school's wishes but they had to allow me and I took the exam for Imperial College in London which was so easy compared to the Cambridge exams. So I got 100 percent on everything and I got a scholarship and I got this and that. So that's how I went to Imperial College and there I had the experience that for the first time I met lots of kids who were as smart as I was.
Ben: [00:02:30] And that was... I also was in a place where it was not nourishing like the school I'd been to, the high school, the grammar school where they'd taken care of the kids, particularly kids who were at the top of the class. Whereas at university I was there one of 100. It was a very hostile atmosphere because there was no group work allowed. Everyone for himself - they knew that they were going to chop like 30 in the first year and 20 in the second year and it was only a three year course anyway. So it was a very unpleasant atmosphere and the teaching was very poor. So at least by the age of 21 when I got out of there I understood something about good teaching and bad teaching and I also understood that I knew very little. Nevertheless I was very lucky to get this first job in the UK Atomic Energy Authority which sounds very military but it wasn't. I worked in the Industrial Division working on nuclear reactors. There I realised that I didn't know much physics but I started to get interested in computing. So - like many things in life - accidents and accidental meetings and accidental changes to your career made a huge difference to me. I came from, if you like, a fairly protected background - a privileged background in the sense that education was known that it was a good thing and I benefited from the free education at that time. This is England in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s recovering from the war. Education was a big thing. It was a good society. Like many, I thought it was going to turn into a socialist paradise and so on. But unfortunately it didn't. But that's another story.