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40 years ago, Ethernet's fathers were the startup kids

Stephen Lawson | May 21, 2013
Bob Metcalfe, Dave Boggs and the rest of the scientists at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973 were a lot like young developers at a Silicon Valley startup today.

Bob Metcalfe, Dave Boggs and the rest of the scientists at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973 were a lot like young developers at a Silicon Valley startup today.

"Beards, Birkenstocks, blue jeans, T-shirts," Metcalfe said earlier this month, recalling how he and his colleagues looked and dressed when they went to work at the cluster of modern, low-slung buildings amid suburban fields during its heyday 40 years ago. He was 27 then. "I had a big, red beard," the gray-haired Metcalfe said. When he and his colleagues padded over to PARC's main conference room in their German hippie sandals for a meeting, they flopped down into beanbag chairs, the only seating in the room. And as in a startup, the relaxed setting disguised an intense environment. "We worked around the clock, generally."

The proto-Silicon Valley geeks even had the Internet, once Metcalfe had set up the connection soon after arriving at PARC in June 1972. At that time it was in an early form called Arpanet, over which researchers at PARC and other institutions could log on to other computers over long distances.

But Facebook, Netflix cat videos and even the Web were still many years away. The staples of the modern Internet would require a much faster network. It would start with one fast enough to send memos to the laser printers PARC was inventing. The rest would come later: email, images, voice, music and video, all in little bundles of moving data called packets.

Metcalfe and Boggs, then a graduate student at Stanford University, worked for months to build such a network, drawing on Arpanet's packet concept and help from many others at PARC. In a memo to the team on May 22, 1973, Metcalfe described the architecture they'd conceived and gave it a name: The Ether Network. The name would stick, and the technology would advance, until today another generation of researchers is starting to explore an Ethernet that will carry 1 terabit per second. On Wednesday, Metcalfe and others who were present at the dawn of Ethernet will mark its 40th anniversary at an Ethernet Innovation Summit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Ethernet wasn't an accidental discovery. After spending about two years working on Arpanet, Metcalfe was hired at PARC to develop a network that would link the new computers there. A PARC visionary named Alan Kay had invented a system called the Alto, which was a whole computer for each user's desktop.

"A problem was created that had never existed before," Metcalfe said. "And that problem was, 'What do you do when you have a building full of personal computers?'"

 

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