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Ethernet — a networking protocol name for the ages

Michelson, Morley, and Metcalfe

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Into the ether

Ethernet was born on May 22, 1973. Or at least the name was. Metcalfe and his networking “Bobbsey Twin” David Boggs coined the term in a PARC memo circulated that spring day. Before that, they called it the Alto Aloha network, after PARC’s Mac-spawning experimental PC and the Alohanet, a University of Hawaii wireless network that served as a primary influence.

Before its existence was summarily disproven by American physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in the late 1800s, the science world assumed that light traveled through an unseen medium known as the “luminiferous ether.” The first networked Altos were nicknamed Michelson and Morley.

“The whole concept of an omnipresent, completely passive-medium for the propagation of magnetic waves didn’t exist. It was fictional,” Metcalfe tells us. “But when David 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.”

It’s one of computer history’s great monikers. And they are few and far between. Metcalfe acknowledges that technically, today’s Ethernet bears little resemblance to the sub-3Mbps protocol that moved packets between Michelson and Morley. It’s the name that survives.

Metcalfe the matchmaker

But it survives in large part because Metcalfe played matchmaker with three tech kingpins of the pre-PC era. In the late 1970s, after Metcalfe left PARC, legendary DEC engineer Gordon Bell urged him to build a DEC-ified version of Ethernet that wouldn’t run afoul of Xerox’s patents. Metcalfe balked at the idea, but it soon sparked another.

“Neither one of us remembers whose idea it was,” Metcalfe says. “But at one point, one of us said 'Why don’t we just call up Xerox and work with them?’ Xerox used DEC computers in their high-end printers and DEC needed printers for its computer people. The best thing to do was work together and then you don’t have to subvert the patents.”

Shortly thereafter, Metcalfe ran into an Intel engineer looking for new things he could build with the company’s new PMOS manufacturing process. Naturally, Metcalfe suggested an Ethernet chip. “Next thing you know, I had DEC, Xerox, and Intel in the same room.”

On September 30, 1980, the three companies published the so-called “blue book” Ethernet spec. And five years later, after more than a few complaints from IBM and General Motors, the IEEE transformed the spec into a standard: IEEE 802.3. The standards body also pushed out standards based on separate specs from Big Blue (Token Ring) and GM (Token Bus). But history was kindest to Ethernet.

Ethernet survived, Metcalfe says, because IBM undermined the openness of its own open standard. Like Harvard, Big Blue was burdened by a “dark little heart.” Metcalfe’s 3Com offered Token Ring as well as Ethernet — in fact, it shipped a Token Ring before IBM — but he claims that IBM insured that compatibility was always a problem.

“IBM had no intention of creating a standard,” Metcalfe says. “In their dark little heart they didn’t really believe in it. 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.”

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