Metcalfe's memo Science

Memo marks beginning of ethernet

Ethernet is the predominant standard for local-area networks today.  

Be it your observation notebook or your records, most of your experiments has a diagram or a schematic that depicts the experimental set-up. Robert Metcalfe came up with one such schematic diagram for ethernet, noted it down in a memo along with his ideas, and gradually developed it over the years.

Born in 1946, Metcalfe decided while still in fourth grade that he will go on to do electrical engineering in Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did just that, completing an extra degree in management as well for good measure.

After obtaining a master’s degree from Harvard in applied mathematics, Metcalfe took a job at MIT while still continuing to work on his PhD in computer science at Harvard. His work involved building the hardware linking MIT to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET).

Failed demonstration

Metcalfe wrote the introductory pamphlet for a 1972 ARPANET conference that won him an audience of 10 AT&T officials. Unfortunately for him, his system crashed while he was giving the demonstration. Looking up in pain, he noticed that the officials were in fact smiling, believing that their technology was safe and bound to stay. This left a lasting impression on Metcalfe, in whose eyes the majority of people in this world were always against innovation.

Harvard failed Metcalfe as his doctoral dissertation was considered “not theoretical enough.” Despite this, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), who had earlier offered him a position, invited him to join them and assigned the task of designing and building a network for personal computers.

PARC at this time was installing Xerox Alto, the first computer designed from start to support an operating system based on a graphical user interface, and EARS, the first laser printer. With computers for the first time small enough for hundreds to be in the same building, a system was required that would enable more PCs and printers to be added to the network, without a shutdown or a reconfiguration.

Over many years

On May 22, 1973, in a memo titled “Alto Ethernet”, Metcalfe laid down his plan and also included a schematic diagram. Using Hawaii’s AlohaNet as an inspiration, Metcalfe suggested using coaxial cables for the connections in order to limit transmission interference. Though this day is often quoted as the day ethernet was invented, Metcalfe himself believes that it was a gradual process over a number of years.

By November 11, 1973, Metcalfe’s system was up and running. Along with colleague David Boggs, he published a paper, “Ethernet: Distributed Packet-Switching For LANs”, in 1976. In that same year, Metcalfe also convinced Xerox, DEC and Intel to let ethernet be the open networking standard. His convincing didn’t go wasted, as ethernet continues to remain the predominant standard for local-area networks (LANs) even today.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 5:12:31 PM |

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