Electronic Design

Robert M. Metcalfe: Inventor Extraordinaire

Metcalfe (2002)

Bob Metcalfe's bio makes it look like he can't keep a job. He helped build the early Internet while still an undergraduate; invented the Ethernet—the local-area-networking standard at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center; founded 3Com Corp.; served as publisher-pundit while at IDG's Infoworld Publishing Co.; wrote three books; and since January 2001 has been a venture capitalist with Polaris Ventures.

He started his career right out of MIT in 1969 with bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering and management. According to Metcalfe, "The hot topic in those days was a brand new thing called the ARPAnet," he explains. "Harvard (his next stop for an MS in applied math, then a PhD in computer science) wouldn't give me any responsibility or any projects to do, but MIT gave me the job of putting them on the ARPAnet." It was site number 10.

"Those of us working on the ARPAnet had only a vague inkling of what might happen with this project," says Metcalfe. "Anyone who claims the clearest hindsight that the ARPAnet would become something called the Internet and that it would be as big and important as it is today is lying. I was there and no one really had a clear notion of where it was going."

While still at Harvard, writing his PhD thesis on packet networking, Metcalfe began to build some hardware and a high-speed network interface that, he says, led to what he's best known for—inventing the Ethernet. But not until he went to Xerox Park in Palo Alto did he first describe the Ethernet in detail in a memo, dated May 22, 1973. "The reception was generally warm, but there was also some hostility" to his ideas, Metcalfe recalls. "A physicist on the staff wrote to my boss accusing me of being a fraud because Ethernet was not quantum-noise-limited. That person just didn't understand what he was talking about."

With all of his success, Metcalfe can still talk about failures. "My biggest failure happened in 1980 when I failed to convince IBM that it shouldn't do the IBM Token Ring, but should instead adopt the Ethernet," he says. "They gave me two shots and I failed."

His interest in local-area networks now extends to the wireless version, known as IEEE 802.11, the standard for the so-called wireless Ethernet. "There's an irony here," he says. "The Internet was based on the Aloha system, which was a wireless network."

The next big thing, Metcalfe believes, will be video over the Internet. "It may take 10 or 20 years, but we'll be re-engineering the Internet's plumbing, the protocols, and applications," he predicts. "Video will be everywhere."

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