Ethernet at 50: Bob Metcalfe pulls down the Turing Award

The co-creator of Ethernet reflects on its growth and weighs the impact of technologies from AI to geothermal power.

bob metcalfe

“Tickled pink” is Bob Metcalfe’s reaction to his latest accolade – the Association for Computing Machinery’s A. M. Turing Award for inventing and commercializing Ethernet. The award was announced today and will be presented at a ceremony June 10 in San Francisco.

With his trademark sense of humor, Metcalfe says, “It’s a big surprise and a delight. I’ve received other awards in the past so I’m familiar with the notion that I have a new obligation to behave myself and live up to the standard of the award and be a role model based on that.”

The award carries a $1 million prize. “My wife suggests I spend it on her,” Metcalfe quipped, before adding that he hasn’t worked out the details but will probably pour most of it into his family foundation (after he fills up his boat with diesel fuel).

He says the award represents important recognition for the role of networking, which occupies a “little corner” of the broader field of computer science.

Ethernet turns 50 years old on May 22, and Metcalfe says he remembers that day in 1973 very clearly. “I was sitting in Building 34 (at Xerox PARC), at a Selectric typewriter, typing a summary of my thoughts on how networks should work, and then I hard-drew the diagrams. I wrote the memo on the Orator ball on the Selectric, which was sans serif because I liked that font.”

David Boggs, the co-creator of Ethernet, died last year and Metcalfe has fond memories of their partnership. “He and I were the Bobbsey Twins. We were wonderfully complementary; I being the more articulate of the two and he being the more detailed oriented. Together we built this thing, and I miss him. He was a good friend.”

Ethernet at 50

After co-inventing and working to standardize Ethernet, Metcalfe commercialized the technology at 3Com, the company that he founded in 1979.

“Ethernet is the foundational technology of the internet, which supports more than five billion users and enables much of modern life,” says Jeff Dean, Google Senior Fellow and SVP of Google Research and AI. “Today, with an estimated seven billion ports around the globe, Ethernet is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. It’s easy to forget that our interconnected world would not be the same if not for Bob Metcalfe’s invention and his enduring vision that every computer needed to be networked.”

Original Ethernet ran at 2.94mbps. Today, Gigabit Ethernet deployments are widespread and 400Gig Ethernet is slowly gaining momentum among hyperscalers, telcos, and other organizations that need ultra-high-speed backbones. In the lab and on the roadmap are 800Gbps Ethernet and even 1.6Tbps Ethernet. Metcalfe says there’s no limit to how fast Ethernet can go – the next frontier is 1.6T/bit Ethernet on a single Lambda.

Hot on geothermal energy

Metcalfe has worn many hats during his career: inventor, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, academic, and pundit. During the 1990s, he was publisher of InfoWorld (a Foundry publication) and wrote a popular column.

The 76-year-old says that taking on new challenges is what has kept him engaged and motivated: “I figured out that the fun part is at the steepest part of the learning curve.” Today, Metcalfe is a research affiliate in computational engineering at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) at MIT.

His focus is on modeling geothermic wells. Metcalfe says eothermal energy has the potential to “save the world.” He says, “If we can perfect drilling and make it economical, we can have access to an infinite supply of completely clean energy.”

Metcalfe says he developed an interest in geothermal energy when he was at the University of Texas, where he was Professor of Innovation at the Cockrell School of Engineering, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the McCombs School of Business, and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise at The University of Texas at Austin.

He was involved in a two-year project with the Deptartment of Energy to use startups to accelerate adoption of the technology and got hooked on the idea of modeling geothermic wells.

“That required that I know thermodynamics. I never took any thermodynamics when I was in college so now I’m studying thermodynamics.” He adds, “After I learn thermodynamics, I have to learn linear algebra.”

That makes Metcalfe the poster boy for lifelong learning. “There’s no other way to be,” he says.

Optimistic about the future

From his vantage point as one of the early pioneers of the computing/internet era, Metcalfe says he’s optimistic about the future. He describes himself as “awestruck” with the advances in artificial intelligence and says the internet plays a key role in making sure that enough data is available for AI-based modeling systems.


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