Turing Award won by co-inventor of Ethernet technology
In June 1972, 26-year-old Bob Metcalfe, a freshly graduated engineer, joined a new research lab in Palo Alto, California, as he set out to build something few people could even imagine: a personal computer.
After another engineer left the job, Dr. Metcalfe was asked to create technology that could connect desktop computers in an office and exchange information between them. The result was Ethernet, a computer networking technology that would one day become an industry standard. For decades it has connected PCs to servers, printers and the Internet in corporate offices and homes around the world.
For his work on Ethernet, the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest society of computer professionals, announced on Wednesday that Dr Metcalfe, 76, will receive this year’s Turing Award. Awarded since 1966 and often referred to as the Nobel Prize for Computing, the Turing Prize comes with a $1 million prize.
When Dr. Metcalfe arrived at the Palo Alto Research Center – a division of Xerox dubbed PARC – the first thing he did was connect the lab to Arpanet, the wide area network that later evolved into the modern Internet. The Arpanet transmitted information to about twenty university laboratories and companies throughout the country.
But when PARC researchers designed their personal computer, called Alto, they realized they needed networking technology that could connect personal computers and other devices within an office, not across long distances.
A graduate student, Charles Simonyi, started building a local network he called Signet, short for Simonyi’s Infinitely Glorious Network. But it was quickly moved to another project. So Mr. Simonyi built a text editor, giving rise to modern word processors like Microsoft Word. And Dr. Metcalfe started working on a new network.
One afternoon in 1973, he was in the basement of the PARC lab, fiddling with a long strand of cable. As he struggled to send electrical impulses down the cable, another researcher offered to help.
The researcher was David Boggs, a PhD student at nearby Stanford University who had recently joined the lab as an intern. Together, Dr. Metcalfe and Dr. Boggs, who died last year, designed what they would call Ethernet.
“He was the perfect match for me,” Dr. Metcalfe said of Dr. Boggs after his death. “I was more of a concept artist, and he was an engineer building the hardware in the back room.” Dr. Metcalfe called himself and his collaborator “the Bobbsey Twins” of computer networks.
Borrowing ideas from a radio network at the University of Hawaii, ALOHAnet, Dr. Metcalfe and Dr. Boggs conceived of Ethernet as a technology that could work with or without wires. But the first network they built inside the PARC offices required cables.
“We wanted to make it wireless,” Dr. Metcalfe said in an interview. “But we couldn’t have a zero son. It would have been too slow and too expensive.
Over the next two decades, several technologies developed for Project Alto would become familiar parts of personal computing, including the graphical user interface and laser printer, as well as Ethernet and word processing. In the 1980s and 1990s, after Ethernet was codified as an industry standard, it became the primary protocol for building networks in corporate offices.
The technology has also been used in homes. And in the late 1990s, it served as the foundation for Wi-Fi, the wireless networking standard used in offices and homes around the world.
“Almost everything you do online goes over Ethernet at some point,” said Marc Weber, curator and director of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., in an interview. “You use it all the time.”
In 1979, Dr. Metcalfe started a company, 3Com, which marketed Ethernet, while Dr. Boggs remained at PARC as a researcher. Later, Dr. Boggs started his own Ethernet company, LAN Media. Both companies were eventually sold to larger companies.
The Ethernet protocol has changed in countless ways over the decades. Little of what Dr. Metcalfe and Dr. Boggs designed at PARC in the 1970s is still technology. But the name – Ethernet – remains. In an industry with a long history of boring names, Ethernet stood out for its memorability.
In the 19th century, “ether” was considered a medium that permeated everything and transmitted waves of light through the universe. This theory was disproved at the turn of the last century, so the two PARC researchers took the name of their project.
“The word became free,” Dr. Metcalfe said, “so we borrowed it.”
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