Ethernet: Metcalfe and Boggs link computers in a network
“Today, Ethernet stands as the dominant networking technology…” by The Economist (2003)
In 1973, Bob Metcalfe (Birth Year: 1946) of Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) faced a problem. Increasing numbers of computers were springing up around him, all of which needed to be connected to each other. Just down the hallway the world’s first laser printer invented at PARC in 1971, was hungry documents.
Computer networking was in its infancy. The hardware was expensive and the wiring at PARC looked like an explosion in a spaghetti factory. Any glitch in the computers or the cabling would bring down the whole system. Metcalfe was given the job of building a simpler and more reliable computer network.
Desperate for inspiration from any source, he stumbled across the University of Hawaii’s ALOHA net, a radio network. Unlike most computer networks which were carefully regulated so only one computer could talk to another at any given moment, ALOHA net was a free for all. If several computers tried to talk at the same time and computer would “back off” for a little while before trying again.
Grabbing graduate student David Boggs from PARC’s basement to help him, Metcalfe set out to build a wired network based on ALOHA net’s ideas. Metcalfe’s “Ethernet” system expected network collisions and glitches and worked around them. Connecting all the computers together on a single long wire hugely while before trying again.
Constantly developed ever since, Ethernet is now the most popular standard for local networks. If you send a document to your office printer today, it is likely to travel down the wires of an Ethernet based network, directly descended from Metcalfe’s work.