Opportunity Lies In Ideas, Engineer Tells Drexel Grads Paul Baran, ``the Grandfather Of The Internet,'' Spoke At His Alma Mater. He Received An Honorary Doctorate.

Posted: June 15, 1997

Paul Baran graduated - just barely, he says - from Drexel University's College of Engineering in 1949. Back then, he says, the place was like ``a boot camp'' and computers were still strange, massive things that very few very technical people knew existed.

The next time Baran received academic honors from Drexel's engineering school was yesterday, when the man known by many as ``the grandfather of the Internet'' received an honorary engineering doctorate and gave a keynote speech at Drexel's 110th commencement, in which 2,000 students graduated.

In the nearly half a century between the two ceremonies, the 70-year-old did his part to change the course of technological history, coming up with an idea for a new type of communications system that many think planted the seed for the Internet.

The idea for the system that now provides everything from breaking news to recipes rose from the fear of a Cold War nuclear holocaust.

Baran worked for the Rand Corp., which was thinking through ways to preserve military communications in the event of a nuclear attack. How would generals pass on crucial orders? At the time, communications systems were centralized or set up in a linear way, so that if one part of the chain were destroyed, the link would be broken.

Baran's breakthrough in 1962 was to imagine a decentralized, democratic system that would be more like a fishnet, where no node in the network was more important than the next and messages could make their way to their destinations even if many parts of the system were gone.

Yesterday, Baran told a fresh-faced crop of just-about-to-graduate engineers that it was ideas - new ones always pushing out old - that would give them opportunity.

``When we consider the future possibilities, the present Internet is still in diapers,'' Baran said.

He told the graduates to embrace change, not fret about it.

``Sleep soundly with the knowledge that new opportunities will always be opening up and you will be in control of your own lives,'' he said.

Baran's speech came at the graduation ceremony for the College of Engineering, the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, the School of Education, and the School of Environmental Science, Engineering and Policy.

Speakers for two other Drexel ceremonies, also held yesterday, were David L. Cohen, former chief of staff for Mayor Rendell, and U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.).

The engineering students cheered, clapped and waved as Drexel president Constantine Papadakis officially gave them the status of graduates. They popped up larger than life on two massive screens flanking the stage at the athletic center.

Parents clambered onto chairs in their Sunday best, trying to capture every moment on video. Some just taped the fuzzy image from the big-screen TVs.

In a row toward the front, Hristos Katsikis sat with his wife, Sophia, beaming and trying to keep about half a dozen shiny silver balloons wedged down between his knees. They were for his son, George, 24, the family's first engineer, who was getting a bachelor's degree.

Why so many? ``Oh, well, he deserves it,'' the proud father said.

Katsikis, who came to America from Greece in 1972, is a manager of the Crystal Lake Diner in Cherry Hill. He did what he could to help, but George often worked two jobs to pay tuition.

Asked whether his son's life would be very different from his own, Hristos Katsikis didn't pause.

``Of course, of course,'' he said as he stood up to cheer. ''At least, I hope, anyway - with all my heart.''

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