Radia Joy Perlman was born on December 18, 1951 to Julius Perlman, an engineer, and Rae Sonne, a mathematician and computer programmer. She was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, while her parents were working as contractors for the United States government, but she spent most of her childhood in Loch Arbour, New Jersey.
Growing up, she found math and science to be “effortless and fascinating,” but she also achieved high-levels of success in other areas of her life. She was an avid piano and French horn player, and she loved to read. She excelled in the STEM area, but was completely hooked on computer programming after taking a computing course in high school -- she was the only female in her class.
Perlman graduated from Ocean Township High School in 1969, and she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While at MIT, she took a physics class where she formally learned computer programming. In 1971, she took her first part-time paid job as a programmer for the LOGO lab at MIT, where she programmed software.
At MIT, she developed a computer programming language that was accessible for children as young as 3.5. The Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System (known as TORTIS) taught children how to program using an educational robot called a Turtle. She is well known for her legendary work on children’s programming. While at MIT, she was one of about 50 women in her class of 1,000 students, but she was never deterred by the gender imbalance.
Perlman is perhaps most famous for developing the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), one of the fundamental operational pieces of the internet. While she is often referred to as “the Mother of the Internet,” she is quick to humbly point out that the internet was not “invented by any individual.” She was also the principal designer of other instrumental protocols that have since improved the capabilities of IT systems worldwide.
She has authored several textbooks about networks and network security, and she holds over 100 patents in her name. She has taught courses at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Washington, and she is often invited to speak about her experience internationally. In 2016, she was inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame (just one of many honors she has received), and she has worked for major IT companies like Sun Microsystems, Intel, and Oracle.