While Wi-Fi continues to gain popularity, ethernet is still widely used by businesses that demand speed, reliability, greater security, and data quality. Invented 50 years ago, the technology continues to be used widely at universities and schools, hospitals, government entities, and business offices.
Its inventor – American engineer Robert Metcalfe – first wrote a memo explaining how Ethernet would work on May 22, 1973. Metcalfe has now been awarded the computing industry’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize – the Turing Award. The Turing award, named after English computer scientist Alan Turing, is bestowed by the Association for Computing Machinery and comes with a $1 million prize.
But behind every great invention is a story, and today we take a look into it.
Who is Robert Metcalfe?
Robert “Bob” Melancton Metcalfe, born April 7, 1946 in New York, is an American engineer, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, professor, and writer. Metcalfe is best known as an internet pioneer who co-invented Ethernet (along with David Boggs), co-founded 3Com Corporation, and introduced ‘Metcalfe’s Law.’
Metcalfe’s father was a gyroscope test technician. His mother was the secretary at Bay Shore High School, where he graduated in 1964.
After completing his schooling, Metcalfe enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and industrial management. Then in 1970, Metcalfe earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics from Harvard University, where he also earned his doctorate in computer science in 1973.
Metcalfe’s first thesis was the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which he was a vocal advocate for. He asked Harvard to connect the university to ARPANET but it refused. He then began working with MIT’s Project MAC (mathematics and computers) where he built some of the hardware that connected the school.
After revising the first version with identification, fixes and analysis of the ALOHA network, his thesis was accepted. ALOHAnet was a wireless packet data network developed at the University of Hawaii that became operational in June 1971. Metcalfe was introduced to ALOHAnet through a paper he read while working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California.
How did Metcalfe invent Ethernet?
Metcalfe was working at Xerox PARC in 1973 when he co-invented Ethernet with David Boggs. Xerox PARC, a research and development company that was founded in 1969 by Jacob E. Goldman, was making some of the first personal computers at the time. Metcalfe was tasked with building a networking system for PARC’s own computers – a technology that could connect desktop machines across an office and send information between them. The goal was to enable all of PARC’s computers to print with a new laser printer that Xerox was developing.
The first ethernet system got up and running on November 11, 1973, and the technology was patented in 1975. In 1976, Metcalfe and Boggs published the paper “Ethernet: Distributed Packet-Switching for Local Computer Networks.”
Metcalfe convinced Intel, Xerox, and Digital Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to work together to promote Ethernet as a standard. The technology was finalised as the open Ethernet standard in 1980, and in 1985, it became an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standard.
In 1979, Metcalfe, along with others who had worked on Ethernet technology at Xerox PARC, founded 3Com Corp. 3Com was an American company that specialised in computer network products and services. The name 3Com stood for “Computer Communication Compatibility”, reflecting its goal of developing network solutions for various standards and platforms, such as UNIX, TCP/IP and Ethernet. 3Com became a public company in 1984 and introduced its own network operating system. In 2009, it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard for $2.7 billion.
What is the Metcalfe’s Law?
Metcalfe is also known for introducing the concept of Metcalfe’s Law, which was first proposed by him around 1980 to promote the use of ethernet. The law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes, meaning that adding more nodes increases the value exponentially. The idea behind this law is that a network becomes more useful and attractive as it connects more people and resources.