By the time a pair of engineers sat down for lunch together in Austin, the Internet’s growing pains had become dire. Once a novelty for computer scientists, the network was now exploding in size, lurching ever closer to a hard mathematical wall built into one of the Internet’s most basic protocols.
As the prospect of system meltdown loomed, the men began scribbling ideas for a solution onto the back of a ketchup-stained napkin. Then a second. Then a third. The “three-napkins protocol,” as its inventors jokingly dubbed it, would soon revolutionize the Internet. And though there were lingering issues, the engineers saw their creation as a “hack” or “kludge,” slang for a short-term fix to be replaced as soon as a better alternative arrived.
That was 1989.
More than a quarter-century later — a span that has seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the smartphone and an explosion of hacking — the “three-napkins protocol” still…