SMAC May 1999 Durkin - 3


In the beginning, there was the luminiferous ether - or at least, that's what scientists thought at the time. The ether was believed to be an "electronic wind" that carried radio transmissions. When it was later proved that the ether doesn't exist, modern technology immediately filled the vacuum with electromagnetic theory. That was not the end of ether, however. Robert Metcalfe, Ph.D. – Father of Ethernet and founder of 3Com Corp. – recycled it. As he explained in a 1994 column for Info World: Ethernet got its name in a memo I wrote at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center on May 22, 1973. Until then, I had been calling our proposed multi-megabit LAN the Alto Aloha Network. It was to connect experimental personal computers called Altos. And it used randomized retransmission ideas from the University of Hawaii's Aloha System packet radio network circa 970. The word ether came from luminiferous ether the omnipresent passive medium once theorized to carry electromagnetic waves through space, in particular, light from the Sun to the Earth. Around the time of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the light-bearing ether was proven not to exist. So, looking to name our LAN's omnipresent passive medium, then a coaxial cable, which would propagate electromagnetic waves, namely data packets, I chose to recycle ether. Hence, Ethernet. And hence, history.

A Patented Success

The word "Ethernet" does not appear anywhere in the text of U.S. Patent 4,063,220, issued December 13, 1977. Nevertheless, more than 80 percent of the computer networks in the world now operate as Ethernets. This phenomenon is largely due to the success of 3Com Corp., which Metcalfe founded in his Palo Alto, Calif., apartment in 1979. When Metcalfe and his colleagues (David Boggs, Charles Thacker and Butler Lampson) first invented Ethernet in 1973, their modest goal (relatively speaking) was to achieve a network speed of 10 million bits per second (Mbps). It wasn't until 1985, however, that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers put its imprimatur on the 802.3 specifications for 10 Mbps Ethernets.