Metcalfe on Ethernet’s History

During the 1970s, the Palo Alto Research Center was the hotspot for computer technology, with various important technological advances in computing coming from these Xerox labs. One of those advances was a humble cable and associated protocols: ethernet was born. El Reg interviewed one of the inventors and the driving force behind ethernet, Bob Metcalfe.

The history of ethernet is an interesting one, and just like all those stories about the (relatively) olden days of computing, filled with amusing anecdotes, such as the origin of the name “ethernet”. For that, we need to go back to the late 1800s, when American physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley disproved the then accepted belief that light travelled through an invisible medium known as the ‘luminiferous ether‘.

And that’s where the name comes from. “The whole concept of an omnipresent, completely passive-medium for the propagation of magnetic waves didn’t exist. It was fictional,” Metcalfe explains to El Reg, “But when David Boggs and I were building this thing at PARC, we planned to run a cable up and down every corridor to actually create an omnipresent, completely-passive medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves. In this case, data packets.” Ergo, ethernet. The two first networked Alto machines were named Michelson and Morley.

The reason why ethernet became the dominant standard in LAN was because Metcalfe forged a brilliant deal between DEC, Intel, and Xerox, in which they standardised on ethernet. By that time, Metcalfe had left Xerox and had formed 3Com, the company that pushed ethernet. In 1980, DEC, Intel, and Xerox released the “blue book” specification for ethernet, and 5 years later, it became an official standard, IEEE 802.3.

Ethernet wasn’t the only standard competing for dominance. Metcalfe recalls how IBM wanted to push its token ring technology, but also that IBM had no intention of actually turning it into a proper, open standard. “IBM had no intention of creating a standard. In their dark little heart they didn’t really believe in it,” Metcalfe recalls, “We shipped before them, but even still, IBM always had 90 per cent market share – because they were a big powerful company but also because they didn’t have their heart in openness. They played all sorts of screwy games with higher level incompatibilities, so that when you tried to sell a Token Ring card into an IBM installation, it would never really work out.”

War, war never changes. It seems like many computer/hardware/software companies today (and with “many” I mean “two”) still try to pull the same little stunts that IBM tried to pull with its token ring technology. You’d think history is there to be learned from.

In any case, it’s an interesting story.


  1. 2009-03-13 6:33 pm
  2. 2009-03-16 10:25 pm