05/12/2021

037 – Through the ether – 1972

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We have technology, finally, that for the first time in human history allows people
to really maintain rich connections with much larger numbers of people.”  Pierre Omidyar, eBay

Bob Metcalfe had worked on Project MAC at MIT and built the interface hardware to sit between MIT’s minicomputers and the ARPANET.  He earned his Harvard PhD while at Xerox PARC where he hooked up its MAX-C to the ARPANET.

As the PARC networking specialist Metcalfe was charged with linking the Xerox Altos.  He knew the ARPANET was not a solution because of the on-costs of its interface equipment.  Charles Simonyi had developed an approach at PARC known as SIGnet, Simonyi’s Infinitely Glorious Network, but Metcalfe deemed this too complex.

He sought a low-cost reliable and expandable alternative. The solution came to him on learning of the Hawaiian network ALOHAnet.

This needed to operate across the archipelago of islands so could not go for a wired approach; it was decided to broadcast data through the air instead.   Metcalfe recognised that the ALOHAnet might suggest an approach for an Alto network.

1972 he wrote ‘The Ether Network’ which was a description of his ideas; but this plan would send data not through the air but through a passive cable.  A coaxial cable would be used to send packets of data, with a random re-send if two Altos should try to transmit data at the same time.  By setting a finite number of attempts he surmised that an overload situation would not be reached.

David Boggs, a Stanford student had been given the mindless part-time task at PARC of unpacking and testing Nova minicomputers.  He met Metcalfe when he was developing an ARPANET connector for the Novas.  Recognising Boggs’s hardware skills Metcalfe arranged for his redeployment to assist with what became named Ethernet.

The two worked under pressure to develop an Ethernet card for the Alto by November 1973.  They reunited to produce a paper on the subject in 1976, proposing it should be marketed as an integrated solution.  However Xerox rejected this suggestion.

Metcalfe left PARC to form 3Com in 1979, the name representing computers, communication and compatibility.  He subsequently talked Digital, Intel and Xerox into jointly marketing Ethernet as a standard.  Ethernet is still today the most used approach for connecting computers in the same building.

1981 Bob Metcalfe encouraged Charles Simonyi to leave PARC and join Microsoft.  Simonyi’s 1976 paper ‘Meta-Programming: A Software Production Method’ was clearly of great appeal to an organisation needing to manage a growing number of staff members and projects.  He implemented his approach there and presided over its move into applications such as Multiplan, Excel and Word.  In later years Simonyi actually had adventures in the ether; he twice flew by Soyuz as a space tourist to the International Space Station.

Mid 1980s 3Com launched the EtherSeries Ethernet adaptor cards for the IBM PC, the VAX and others.  The cards were EtherMail for email, EtherPrint for printing, EtherShare for file sharing and Ether-3279 for IBM terminal emulation.

1987 3Com purchased Bridge Communications which had shipped the first ever commercial router.  The acquisition broadened its market from network cards into routers.

1997 3Com had merged/acquired US Robotics, the modem maker and by then owner of Palm Inc.  It used this base to enter the digital subscriber line business – broadband distribution of data across the telephone network.  In 2010 Hewlett-Packard acquired 3Com at $7.90 per share, thus valuing it at $2.7bn.

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