I remember the feeling even today. As I sat in a shell-shocked newsroom on Sept. 11, 2001, reading the fire-hose of news blasting across my computer, one story caught my attention—and drained the blood from my face and created a pit in my stomach.
It was a news release from Akamai, a Boston-based Internet technology company, confirming that co-founder Daniel Lewin was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 that hit the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center.
The release immediately erased my objectivity as a journalist. I became a 10-year-old kid playing in the streets of my neighborhood with my friend Danny. This week, I’m reminded of his brilliance that is still evident today.
Log on to the world’s busiest and most popular websites, and as the pages appear on the screen, thank Danny. He came up with a complex mathematical algorithm that is used to divert Internet traffic from server to server, preventing an online traffic jam. It is the basis for a company Danny helped found in 1998.
A year later, the company, Akamai, went public. Danny became a billionaire when he was just 29 years old.
Like just about every other technology-based company, Akamai got slammed when the bubble burst, as many of its clients got sucked under. The company’s stock plunged from $300 a share to less than a buck almost overnight.
Today, the company is not only surviving, it’s thriving. The stock is trading in the $30 range, up from about 75 cents in 2002. Danny’s brilliance continues to shine as new online solutions are tied back to the work he did more than a decade ago.
“Akamai is a great legacy, and its success today has roots with Danny—his vision and ability to motivate people,” co-founder and chief scientist Tom Leighton told me several years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We are realizing Danny’s vision, and it would have been rewarding for him to see.”
Danny, who was born and raised in south Denver before immigrating to Israel with his family, will also be remembered as the first person to die in the 9/11 attacks.
Flight communications show that on Sept. 11, Danny was in seat 9B of American Airlines Flight 11 bound for Los Angeles.
A recording from a flight attendant said that a businessman sitting in 9B was killed after he got out of his seat. Shortly afterward, the plane slammed into the World Trade Center. Danny’s role is outlined briefly in the 9/11 Commission report.
Friends said that Danny probably knew better than anyone what was taking place and tried to stop the hijacking. That’s because before MIT and Akamai, he served in the Israeli Defense Forces as a member of Sayeret Matkal, a counterterrorism unit. His exploits were legendary.
In one training exercise, his unit was given three days to cross 100 miles in the desert with few provisions. Danny did it twice.
At Danny’s funeral, Charles Lewin said his son was the first casualty of the next great war.
At the time of his death, Danny and other Akamai founders were setting up the Akamai Foundation to encourage the study of math.
Not only are underprivileged students given a leg up through the foundation’s “Magic of Math” program, successful students are given further encouragement through scholarships.
Akamai has a portrait of Danny in the main lobby and named its Employee of the Year Award after him. Shortly after Sept. 11, MIT named a public courtyard in Cambridge the Daniel Lewin Square. A tree planted in the square flourishes today, as does his legacy.