If Danny Lewin had been assigned a different seat on American Airlines Flight 11 a dozen years ago, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. But you never know. A man of uncommon strength and shrewdness, Lewin just might have changed history, at least a little bit.
Lewin, a bodybuilder, former Israeli commando, and MIT-trained mathematician, had already made his mark on the Internet. As a founder of Akamai Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Lewin helped develop a new way of routing network traffic that let major websites deliver more content faster than ever before. Thanks to Akamai, millions could read the same news story or watch the same Internet video simultaneously.
The excellence of Lewin’s work was confirmed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when Akamai customers like CNN’s Internet site successfully coped with the frenzied demand for news about the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Lewin would have been proud if he hadn’t been a victim of the atrocity — perhaps the very first victim.
Lewin’s heroic, tragic life deserves a book, though he might have wished for a better one. Author Molly Knight Raskin, a documentary film producer, relates the story with the brisk efficiency of a wire-service reporter on deadline. With flat, unadorned prose and lack of poignant, telling detail, Raskin fails to really pull the reader in. Still, Lewin’s story gets told in these pages, and it’s quite a tale.
Lewin’s father, a psychiatrist and avid Zionist, relocated the family from Colorado to Haifa, Israel, in 1984. Embittered and lonely at first, the teenage Danny Lewin made a place for himself in his new country, excelling in school and at a local fitness center.
In 1988, at age 18, Lewin entered the Israeli army, and was recruited to the elite Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s equivalent of the US Navy SEALs.
After the army, Lewin studied at Israel’s scientific university Technion, then returned to the United States to pursue a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he teamed with professor Tom Leighton to develop mathematical models for efficiently routing vast quantities of Internet data. Both men realized it was too good an idea to languish on a whiteboard. Lewin, now married with two young kids and desperate for money, was especially eager to make something of his innovation.
An effort to win $50,000 in an MIT contest for new business ideas fell short, but Lewin and Leighton did end up making crucial contacts who’d help finance a company based on their technology.
Akamai launched in late 1998, just as Internet usage was entering the mainstream of American life, and investors backed even the silliest Internet start-ups with billions of dollars. Less than a year later, Akamai began selling stock to the public; on paper, the company was worth $13 billion, and Lewin himself held a $1.8 billion stake.
The very next year, the air began seeping from the tech bubble; Akamai’s share price began to slide, and dozens of small “dot-com” businesses who’d signed up as customers started going bankrupt. Meanwhile, rival firms had begun to mimic Akamai’s performance-boosting technology.
To survive, Akamai needed a superior way to manage data traffic. Just as important, the company needed to replenish its client list. Lewin came through with a new method for delivering Web pages and was headed for a round of West Coast sales calls when he climbed aboard Flight 11.
Raskin has certainly done her homework. She’s talked to dozens of colleagues and family members, and occasionally roots out some unexpected details. For instance, we learn how the prospect of landing Playboy.com as a customer kicked off an internal debate on the wisdom of working with adult-entertainment businesses. Raskin also details how Akamai’s relentless demands on Lewin nearly destroyed his marriage. He’d separated from his wife, Anne, but the couple was on the verge of reconciliation on Sept. 11.
That day, Lewin occupied seat 9B. According to a phone call from one of the flight attendants aboard the doomed plane, the man in that seat died early in the hijacking, his throat slashed. Two of the hijackers were seated in front of Lewin. It’s likely he tried to fight them, unaware that another of the attackers was sitting directly behind him.
If the seating arrangements had been different, it’s just possible Lewin could have made a difference that day. As Raskin reminds us, this brilliant and combative man surely would have tried.Hiawatha Bray covers high technology for the Globe and can be reached at email@example.com.