50 years later, the creator of Ethernet wins the first prize in computing
Bob Metcalfe won the 2022 Turing Award, the computer industry’s premier award, for creating the Ethernet standard that today connects billions of devices to wired and wireless networks.
The idea behind Ethernet appeared in a May 22, 1973 memo that Metcalfe wrote to his bosses at Xerox PARC, the Palo Alto research center famous for a series of fundamental computer inventions. Fifty years later, Ethernet connects virtually all laptops and smartphones to the Internet.
The Turning Award, named after Alan Turing, pioneer and famous WWII codebreaker, is given by the Association for Computing Machinery and comes with a $1 million prize. It is often called the Nobel Prize for Computing. Previous Turing Award winners include dozens of luminaries who invented chip design, encryption, programming tools, the Web, the Internet, and the AI technology that has become so popular today.
Metcalfe also founded 3Com, a company that profited greatly from the commercialization of Ethernet, and worked as a columnist, professor, and venture capitalist, among other careers.
“This is my sixth career,” Metcalfe said in an interview. He writes software to try to use computers to simulate geothermal power plants and other complex real-world systems. “My attitude is that I want to do simulation not to optimize things, but to discover them.”
Metcalfe is also famous for Metcalfe’s Law – an idea he had, but not a title he came up with. The law states that the value of a network increases proportionally to the square of the number of devices that can use it.
“It was a great way to make a sales pitch at 3Com,” Metcalfe said of the idea. Later, however, he validated the idea by linking Facebook’s total membership to his revenue. “For Facebook’s first 10 years, there’s a perfect fit.”
Ethernet Speed Boost
Wired Ethernet began at Xerox PARC with data transfer speeds of 2.94 megabits per second. It now reaches 800 gigabits per second, or about 272,000 times faster. Another doubling is in preparation, at 1.6 terabits per second.
Wired Ethernet ports disappeared from laptops and never made it to phones. But the technology has been adapted to Wi-Fi standards, bringing new convenience and ubiquity to the Internet. (Metcalfe prefers Wi-Fi’s original name, Wireless Ethernet.)
Grudge Token Ring
Today it is almost universal in digital devices, but Ethernet had stronger competition in its early days. Top of the list of rivals was IBM’s Token Ring.
“Token Ring was a pain in the neck for 20 years. Finally, we killed it,” Metcalfe said.
It still hurts, he said half-jokingly.
“I’m only human. I resent those bastards,” Metcalfe said. “It’s been 50 years. You’d think by now I’d have forgiven them all, but Token Ring people aren’t invited to my dinner parties.”