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May 22, 1973: Enter Ethernet

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Old 05-22-2008
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May 22, 1973: Enter Ethernet
1973: Bob Metcalfe of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center writes a memo outlining how to connect the think tank's new personal computers to a shared printer. The memo puts forth the basic properties of -- and names -- ethernet. Metcalfe had been an MIT undergraduate whiz kid and Harvard grad student working on computers and how to network them. Even before completing his Ph.D., he went to work for Xerox PARC, which assigned him the task of designing and building the first network for PCs.
PARC was installing its own Xerox Alto, the first personal computer, and EARS, the first laser printer. It needed a system that would allow additional PCs and printers to be added without having to reconfigure or shut down the network. It was the first time that computers were small enough for hundreds to be in the same building, and the network had to be fast to drive the printer.
Metcalfe circulated his plan in a memo titled "Alto Ethernet." It contained a rough schematic drawing and suggested using coaxial cable for the connections and using data packets like Hawaii's AlohaNet or the Defense Department's Arpanet. The system was up and running Nov. 11, 1973.
Metcalfe didn't base the name ethernet on the anesthetic that puts people to sleep. It refers instead to a discredited scientific theory of the luminiferous aether, an undifferentiated universal medium that some 18th- and 19th-century scientists thought necessary for the propagation of light. Metcalfe saw it as an apt metaphor for a medium that would propagate information.
Metcalfe shares four patents for ethernet. He and PARC colleague David Boggs published the concept in a 1976 paper, "Ethernet: Distributed Packet-Switching For LANs." That was the same year Metcalfe convinced Xerox, DEC and Intel -- the three funding companies -- to let ethernet become an open networking standard. It eventually supplanted competing technologies like IBM's Token Ring and General Motors' Token Bus to become the predominant standard for local-area networks.
Metcalfe went on to found 3Com ("computers, communication, compatibility") in 1979. He left after losing an internal power struggle in 1990 and became a widely read columnist for Info World. Today he's a general partner at the VC firm Polaris Ventures.
He's also known for Metcalfe's Law: The value of a network grows as the square of the number of its users.
Want to wish ethernet a Happy Birthday? Send this page to your office printer -- by ethernet, of course.
Source: "The Legend of Bob Metcalfe," Wired 6.11

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