- Indisputably an Internet pioneer, Travers was instrumental in building early gateways that connected one computer network to another.
- She worked on pilot software programs called Slate and Diamond that foreshadowed such now-famous Microsoft Office brands as Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.
- She helped develop a precursor to FaceTime called Picture Window, or PicWin.
But ask Ginny Travers what makes her most proud, and the answer has as much to do with life outside of her work as within it. In many ways, she embodies the concept of work-life balance.
“Yes, I’m proud of the work I did, I’m proud to have been part of the team that built the Internet. It’s nice to be able to point to that accomplishment,” she said.
“But more than that, I’m particularly proud that I had a career and I have a family, and I managed to pull off both. It’s not easy.”
Travers is a woman who, throughout her life, has had a clear sense of priorities. Her work certainly was a top one of those, and her noteworthy accomplishments have been recognized with admission to the Internet Hall of Fame.
Along the way, though, she never lost sight of the need to have a life beyond work, a life of recreation outdoors, which she loves, and above all a life within her family.
“A lot of people succeed in one or the other, but arriving at a compromise and managing to make it work, that has been very, very important to me,” she said.
Despite the seriousness with which she approached her professional life and her noteworthy accomplishments, Travers refused to be a workaholic.
For proof look no further than the fact that she spent more than 20 years of her career – including time in management – as a part-time employee, choosing to invest time at home raising her family.
And while Travers traveled frequently for work, she rarely missed the opportunity these trips provided to spend recreational time outdoors – hiking Fjords with the Norwegian Hiking Association, tramping through Stonehenge, taking to the trails at Yosemite National Park.
“I like being outdoors,” she said, with a smile. “Makes you wonder how I kept a 40-year desk job.”
Now, having retired in 2012 while still in her 50s, she typically spends two months of the winter skiing in Utah and three months of the summer living with her husband on their boat in Maine, and in between they “hike, bike and travel.”
“We retired,” she said, “because we simply wanted to play. I think I was home 70 days this year.”
None of this can or should obscure Travers’ remarkable professional accomplishments in a career that had its roots in her early education in Cleveland.
The daughter of a tool-and-die maker father and a homemaker mother, Travers was a precocious student, especially in math and science, subjects in which she took advanced placement classes.
Although computers were nonexistent in her 1970s high school, she followed an older brother into Case Western Reserve, where she was determined to study computing.
“A lot of schools at the time didn’t even have computing majors,” Travers said. “Case did, and that’s why I went.”
Having earned a bachelor’s degree at Case, Travers moved to Massachusetts, the state that has been her home ever since. There she began her professional career as a programmer for a mainstream defense contractor.
But that job only lasted nine months, as Travers found the firm to be coasting a bit on its past accomplishments and its culture “a little staid” for her taste. In 1975 she jumped to Bolt, Beranek and Newman, the famous Cambridge-based R&D company (and later Raytheon subsidiary) where she found a culture that managed at the same time to be both more dynamic and more laid back.
“When they made me an offer to start on a Monday, I said, ‘What time?’” she recalled. “They said, ‘Come in when you want; we usually have coffee around now.’ So, they really cared about what you did, but not about following some timetable. That was the culture.”
BBN had been best known for its work in acoustics. The company designed some of the world’s most famous concert halls, investigated the 18-minute gap in the Richard Nixon tapes and analyzed the shots fired in Dallas when President Kennedy was killed.
But BBN was also centrally involved in the early days of the Defense Department’s Internet prototype ARPANET, establishing connections that allowed different computer systems to communicate with each other. And Travers was right in the middle of that work – initially connecting ARPANET to the Atlantic Satellite Network and then adding the San Francisco Bay Area-based Packet Radio Network.
Those original network connections typically involved research universities and government agencies, and in many cases travel was required to create the connections. So, Travers went to England where she installed the first gateway, or router, at University College London, then to the West Coast and Silicon Valley for Packet Radio Net, and then to Oslo for the Atlantic Satellite Network connection at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. And it was along the way that, in her spare time, she tacked on adventures in the outdoors – with the Norwegian Hiking Association, in the Swiss Alps and in the California Sierra, to name just three.
When home in Massachusetts, Travers also found time for two pastimes that led, ultimately, to marriage, One was sailing – part of her passion for the outdoors and a reason why she had moved east in the first place – and the other was volunteer work for a community theater group, The Concord Players. It was at the theater – during, appropriately enough, a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” – that she met Rob Travers, a volunteer stage manager who earned a living working in government relations for Comcast.
As they chatted, Rob mentioned that he had lived in Concord until he bought his boat and moved closer to the ocean.
“When he said ‘boat,’” Travers recalled, “he suddenly became especially interesting. And we were sailing together before the play even ran to completion.”
Virginia and Rob were married in 1982. When their first child was born in 1984, Virginia moved to part-time work, averaging 20 hours a week at work as an hourly employee – but with flexibility, depending on the demands of the job and of her family at any given time.
“Things get busy at work, I put in more hours,” she said. “Things get busy at home, I stay home more.”
“It was pretty much a breakthrough back then,” Travers continued. “At that point in time, women who started a family, they were going to drop out of the workforce for a while. I was probably the first technical person who worked part time in my company. You see a lot more of that nowadays but you sure didn’t then. And at the same time, I continued to get promotions.”
Those promotions, in fact, included a stint in corporate management – despite being part time – although she ultimately decided she preferred being an individual contributor to management and went back to R&D work.
“In both of those roles, BBN was very flexible about my hours,” Travers said. “That was one big reason why I stayed with them.”
Travers’ dedication to BBN was also reinforced by the eclectic assignments she received. After her initial work on Internet connectivity, she moved to new R&D projects.
“Production is very regimented work, and I really wasn’t interested in that,” she said. “R&D was about exploring new ideas. And there were many different projects, so you weren’t working on the same thing all the time.”
In many ways, BBN – and Travers – were in the technical vanguard of applications that are ubiquitous today, foreshadowing not just the Microsoft Office suite of products but Facetime (through her work on Picture Window) and even email itself.
But while government projects made all this research possible, it didn’t extend to capitalizing on them.
“We were precursors to a lot of what you see now,” Travers said, “but we never took these things to market. I often say I spent 38 years working on things, and the Internet was the only thing that ever hit the light of day.”
“But you know,” Travers added, “technology didn’t develop in a linear way, There were lots of different contributions from different companies. The government put a huge amount of money into R&D, and research funded by the government was then in the public domain, so different organizations were building on different pieces of things. It was an exciting time – and it still is.”
Travers had a second son in 1987, and she remained a part-timer until he got his driver’s license in 2003, when she returned to BBN full time. There she continued to work in R&D, helping the military’s Transportation Command with long-range logistics planning and improving computer communications.
A highlight of her work in that period was PicWin, the precursor to Facetime and an illustration of how computer use has evolved into, among other things, our modern world of Zoom.
“You and I are talking, and you’re nodding your head and I’m bouncing my head back and forth, and we’re not seeing any pixelization,” Traver said. “In the early days, believe me, you kept your head still. And you couldn’t move a mouse around the screen in real time. The hardware wasn’t supporting it. I mean, the Arpanet had a 9.6-kilobit backbone line.”
Around the same time came the case of the World Band – a Defense Department initiative in which four students at four DoD Dependent Schools in Asia, Europe and the U.S. played music together. The challenge was not just to link the students but to program for the latency created by distance so the music would be harmonious. The software equation was made more complex by computer hardware that was, again, still relatively primitive by today’s standards.
“When the kids hit different parts of the same chord, we needed it to all be in sync,” said Travers, who managed the project. “We did a demonstration in Orlando in front of a couple thousand people. I got some new gray hairs that day, but it worked.”
Looking back on this period, Travers reflected not just on how much has changed, but how much has not.
“One of the really amazing things – and I think one of the real tributes to the people who did so much of the design – is that the basic design, with some modifications, has carried forward,” she said. “The rules for how information gets exchanged, the Transmission Control Protocol, are still what underlie the Internet.”
Asked about the Internet’s value to society, Travers, with a caveat, is pretty unambiguous.
“Well, of course, technology can be used for good or evil, and sure there are downsides to where we are,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s given a much louder voice to people on the fringe than they had before.
“But that’s in the use of technology, not the technology itself,” she continued. “The good the Internet has brought is just overwhelming.
“We don’t remember what it was like to try and keep in touch with family – when it cost $1-a-minute to talk to someone on the phone. Technology has brought families together, brought people from different backgrounds together. And the more you do that, the better chance you have for peaceful coexistence. I look at all it’s done within my family and friends, and I’m glad to have been a part of that.”
Two notable people who had a lasting influence on Travers were Harry Forsdick and Ray Tomlinson.
The Slate, Diamond and PicWin projects were largely Forsdick’s ideas, Travers said. “Furthermore, I worked for him for many years, and he was very supportive of my part time work and dedication to my family.”
Tomlinson, meanwhile, is widely considered the inventor of email. Travers worked alongside him for several years at BBN. It was he, for example, who developed the actual software used in the World Band project.
“He was the most brilliant guy and excellent at tutoring people, and yet he was also the most modest,” Travers recalled. “You don’t get that combination very often. So many people crow about their accomplishments; he was more accomplished than any of them, and he crowed not at all.”
Travers is no crower either, but she is happy to be able to tell her two grown sons’ children that she helped create computing as they know it today. Even then, she speaks with modesty.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. “Not a mastermind, but part of a team.
“In the histories of people who worked on the Net,” she added, “you see people who got advanced degrees, were recognized as scholars in the field, started businesses. That doesn’t describe me. I didn’t start my own company or get a PhD. or become the world’s expert on any particular thing.
“But I had a rewarding career and a rewarding life, and here I am in the Internet Hall of Fame.
“So, if I could pass a message on to people starting out it’s that you shouldn’t be thinking that unless you’re devoting every minute to your career, it somehow doesn’t count. It’s this: There’s more than one path.”