Network: Father to the Ethernet

Talent, drive and luck helped Bob Metcalfe to invent the world's most popular networking technology. By Wendy Grossman

Seven-year-old Max has a problem: he wants to go to the computer store as father promised to get him some networking pieces for his computer, but his father won't stop talking to this boring woman who keeps asking questions over breakfast.

Max is patient about this, and draws pictures with a multi-coloured pen, but he wants to know when they can go. "Nine minutes," his father tells him. There's no clock in sight, but Max accepts it. Max's father is Bob Metcalfe, who the night before won an Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer award for inventing Ethernet, the most popular networking technology in the world. If your computer at work is connected to other computers in the office, chances are the link is by Ethernet.

Metcalfe also founded 3Com in 1979, turning it into a $400m-a-year company (it's since grown to $1.7bn) before he left in 1990. Unlike some other company founders, he saw the writing on the wall and left amicably before the board could request his resignation. In his award acceptance speech in Boston, he predicted, Cassandra-like, that the Internet would begin to collapse over the next year.

Every successful person in the technology business seems to have drawn on three factors: one, the intelligence and talent to see an opportunity and make the most of it; two, the drive to carry out the plan, and three, the luck to have been in the right place to have the opportunity. "My main luck," Metcalfe says, "was being at Xerox PARC in 1972."

Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was where some of the industry's best and brightest researchers congregated in the early Seventies. The first personal computer graphical interface was developed there for Apple to borrow from; the beginnings of PostScript were invented there and fed into the founding of Adobe. Metcalfe built the world's first personal computer network there.

His career in networking started even earlier while he was leading a confused existence both studying for his PhD at Harvard, and working on Project Mac (now the Laboratory of Computer Science) in the wildly different culture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He got the job at PARC in 1972, then went to defend his PhD thesis back at Harvard - and failed it. In the US academic world, this is not supposed to happen. "Never. Except that one time."

The reason, he says, was, "Failing to have either myself or my thesis adviser careful enough to be sure I didn't fail. And being arrogant for as long I can remember, I didn't see this coming."

The thesis was resubmitted and accepted a year later, and recently republished under the title Packet Communication. It was about the Arpanet, which was the precursor of the Net and which he was already working on, and the Aloha network, a packet radio network in Hawaii. His thesis adviser, by the way, was Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of artificial intelligence.

"Xerox said, come anyway, so I did." At the time, PARC was working on personal computers. "I was the networking guy. And I took the ideas from the Aloha network and transformed them into a thing called the Ethernet, on 22 May, 1973. Approximately."

At the time there were already other networking technologies, but Metcalfe says Ethernet was successful through "a combination of good technology and because it was promoted as a standard." That year, 1973, was the same year the TCP/IP structure that became the backbone of the Net was invented.

It was, as Metcalfe says, never designed to take the load it's now being asked to carry. Hence his prediction of collapse, a word he uses carefully. He doesn't mean complete system meltdown. Instead, he means the equivalent of electrical brownouts and blackouts - intermittent small outages. He figures there are up to 10 ways it could collapse: "I'm just betting one of them's going to happen, because it seems inevitable." He lists things such as overloading, sabotage (whether by hackers or by Net service providers fighting over market share), the advent of video and audio, the bugs in router software, which he is confident are there even if they are unrecognised so far, and the absence of what he calls a "messaging system" between supply and demand that would solve the overloading problem.

This last, he believes, could be tackled with a settlement system, the kind of arrangement that telephone companies have to pay for carrying each other's traffic. It flies in the face of the Net's current "I'll carry your traffic, you carry mine" ethos, but Metcalfe believes this structure is "naive".

After he left 3Com, he spent a year at Cambridge University's Computer Lab. "Loved it," he says. And that's when he decided to become a journalist - he could afford to write 2,000- word articles and get paid $350. He spent two years as publisher of the American magazine Info World, and still writes a column for it. Now he makes his living as a journalist - or rather as a guru who writes - and his thoughts are taken very seriously indeed.

But it's been a lot longer than nine minutes, and Max still wants his computer pieces. "He needs to download," Metcalfe explains, as though it were a phase that all kids go through.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor