UCLA Medal Presentation to Leonard Kleinrock


Good evening, everyone!  It’s so nice to see you all here for the awarding of the UCLA Medal to our very own Leonard Kleinrock!

Professors are by their nature curious people. We poke, we prod, we ponder things both big and small. We want to figure out how things work and how to make them work better. We want to unearth novel understandings of ancient cultures, seek smart solutions to stubborn problems, discover new answers to old questions. Sometimes, if we are persistent, if we are lucky, we may even help create something that changes the way people live their lives.

Leonard Kleinrock is one of those persistent ones whose prodding and pondering has helped shape modern life.

From a working class family of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Len was born in Harlem in 1934 and raised in Washington Heights. He graduated Bronx High School of Science in 1951 after which his father asked him to stay in New York to help support the family.

He spent five and a half years working in New York while taking night classes at New York City College, where he received his undergraduate degree. He eventually went on to get his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the 1960s, while an MIT graduate student, Len created the mathematical theory of packet switching, a technique that allows different computers to communicate with each other by sharing information in bursts. That technique would help build the foundation of our modern age.

Five years later, as a UCLA professor, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) asked Len to put his theory into practice.

That he did. And more. On a historic night, Oct. 29, 1969, only three months after human beings first landed on the moon, at 10:30 p.m. from his UCLA laboratory, Len directed the first message to be sent through what we know now as the internet, a message that went from our UCLA computer to a computer at the Stanford Research Institute. We call that lab the “birthplace of the internet” — and it remains perfectly preserved in 3420 Boelter Hall.

I really encourage all of you to visit this mini museum commemorating this historic moment.

It is a moment in UCLA’s history that brings us great pride — and Len helped organize a wonderful conference this past fall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that transmission — and also to confront head-on the challenges we face today.

But that moment, a key event in the digital revolution, was only the beginning.

In the 1980s, Len went on to chair the National Research Council that authored a report calling for a single high speed network to connect the nation’s computers.

At the time this was called by some “the information super highway.” Today, it is called the internet. And while Eisenhower’s interstate highway connected the nation, the information super highway has connected the world.

The creation of the internet is one of those moments that truly transforms the world — like the creation of the printing press, the light bulb or the steam engine. Every aspect of human endeavor — from academic research to shopping, from political organizing to informal socializing — has been impacted by the internet.

How we understand each other, how we see our past, how we imagine our future, have all been shaped and reshaped by the technology that Leonard Kleinrock was central in developing.

As a kid, Len was a tinkerer. Driven by curiosity, he would disassemble and reassemble toys, build model airplanes, fix toasters and experiment with electrical gadgets. While reading a Superman comic, he stumbled across instructions for making a build-it-yourself radio. While it did require him to buy one small piece of electronic equipment from a local store, Len was taken by the fact that the radio could be built almost entirely out of common household items like a razor, pencil and even an empty toilet paper roll. When he assembled all the pieces and turned it on, amazingly the homemade radio — which did not include a battery — actually worked!  “This was magic.” He has said. “Where was this coming from? There was no energy going into the system. I just had to find out how this all worked. Basically, I was hooked.”

That moment helped drive a fascination with engineering that took him to MIT to UCLA to that famous lab in Boelter Hall to being hailed as one of the fathers of the internet.

But, as grateful as we all are for Superman’s contributions to this story, I hope Len will forgive me for suggesting that in order to understand Len’s life and work, we must also look to one of Superman’s competitors. It was Spider-Man, the star of a rival comic book, who made famous the modern maxim that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Whether he knows it or not, Len has some Spider-Man in his heart.

He made that quite clear in the way he has spoken about our obligation to ensure that we use the power of the internet responsibly.

In a powerful op-ed last year, Len lamented that commercialization, corporate interests, nationalistic agendas and various dangerous players came to dominate an internet that had originally been created in a spirit of honesty, trust and connection.

He wrote that “A once-convivial online community transformed into one of competition, antagonism and extremism. And then, as the millennium ended, our revolution took a more disturbing turn that we continue to grapple with today.”

Len lamented that “Organized crime recognized the internet could be used for international money laundering, and extremists found the internet to be a convenient megaphone for their radical views.”

With the heartfelt urgency of a parent dismayed to see their child go astray, he has called on governments, scientists, industry and individual consumers to work together to restrain the pernicious effects of the internet and return it to what he calls the internet’s “ethical roots.”

His insistence on ethical roots, the acknowledgment that both our inventions and our intentions matter, demonstrate that Leonard Kleinrock not only has the intellect but also the character that merit this award. I am going to ask him to join me now up here as I read the official UCLA Medal citation:


As a professor, researcher and innovator, your hard work and imagination led you to the mathematical theory of packet networks and helped create the technology underpinning the internet.

In more than 250 insightful papers and six books on subjects such as packet-switching networks, broadband networks, performance- evaluation, peer-to-peer networks and more, you have helped provide the intellectual foundation for the modern technical age. You transformed your UCLA laboratory into a historical landmark when your host computer became the first node on what would become the internet, and where you directed transmission of the first message. The UCLA community has benefited from the intellectual leadership you have demonstrated as a professor of computer science and as chair of the Computer Science Department.

You have been a role model and mentor to students and have supervised the research of dozens of graduate students who have gone on to become some of the world’s most distinguished advanced networking experts. As the internet has grown in scope and influence, you have been a voice of conscience urging us to consider the ethical implications of how we use technology.

Your creativity, ingenuity and conviction that technology must serve the public good represent the best of UCLA’s mission of research, education and service. For these reasons, we are proud to bestow upon you the UCLA Medal. Given at UCLA this twenty-first day of February, two thousand twenty.