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Robert Metcalfe

Contributor(s): Wesley Chai; Matthew Haughn

Robert "Bob" Melancton Metcalfe, born April 7 1946, is an American engineer, entrepreneur, professor, writer and venture capitalist. Metcalfe is best known as an internet pioneer who co-invented Ethernet, co-founded 3Com Corp. and introduced the concept of Metcalfe's Law.

Ethernet, an international standard, is now the most widely used LAN protocol. 3Com, the company he co-founded to promote compatibility in computer communications, grew into a multibillion dollar company, and was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2009. Metcalfe's Law, coined by George Gilder in 1993, was based on a concept that Metcalfe introduced to promote Ethernet around 1980.

Metcalfe founded the PopTech conference in 1997 and became a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners in 2001. Currently, Metcalfe holds several positions with the University of Texas at Austin. He is the Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise. Metcalfe delivered multiple keynote speeches and, in 2019, he presented the Bernard Price Memorial Lecture.

Education

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1946, Metcalfe's father was a gyroscope test technician. His mother was the secretary at Bay Shore High School, where he graduated from in 1964.

After graduating, Metcalfe enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He graduated in 1969 with bachelor of science degrees in electrical engineering and industrial management. In 1970, Metcalfe earned a master of science degree in applied mathematics from Harvard University, where he also earned his doctorate in computer science in 1973.

Metcalfe's first dissertation topic was on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which he was a vocal advocate for. When Harvard refused to allow him to connect the school to ARPANET, Metcalfe began working with MIT's Project MAC (mathematics and computers). There, he built some of the hardware that connected the school. After revising the first version with identification, fixes and analysis of the University of Hawaii's ALOHA network, his thesis was accepted.

Metcalfe was introduced to the AlohaNET model through a paper he read while working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California.

Ethernet

Metcalfe was also working at Xerox PARC in 1973 when he co-invented Ethernet, along with David Boggs. Ethernet is a system for connecting computers with physical hardware. Some of the first personal computers were being made at PARC, when Metcalfe was tasked with building a networking system for PARC's own computers. The purpose of this network was to enable all of PARC's computers to print with a new laser printer that Xerox was developing.

Nov. 11, 1973, was the first day an Ethernet system was up and functioning. Xerox PARC patented Ethernet in 1975. In 1976, Metcalfe and Boggs published the paper "Ethernet: Distributed Packet-Switching for Local Computer Networks."

Metcalfe convinced Intel, Xerox and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to work together and promote Ethernet as a standard. Important years in the history of Ethernet include 1980, when there was a finalized open Ethernet standard, and 1985, when it became an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standard.

3Com

Metcalfe left PARC in 1979 to co-found 3Com Corp., a computer networking equipment and software manufacturer. 3Com was founded to promote compatibility in computer communication, developing personal computer (PC) local area network (LAN) products for emerging UNIX, TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) and Ethernet standards. The name 3Com is a contraction of "computer communication compatibility," three words that start with the "com-" prefix.

3Com went public in 1984 and was acquired by Hewlett-Packard on Nov. 11, 2009 for $2.7 billion.

Metcalfe's Law

In 1993, Gilder formulated Metcalfe's Law as we know it. The fundamental idea was first introduced around 1980 by Metcalfe to promote the use of Ethernet.

Metcalfe's Law, to telecommunications networks, is used to quantify the value of a given network. The law states that the "value" of a network can be calculated by taking the number of nodes and squaring it. In essence, it states that a network which can call, write or link to more users and/or web entities holds more value.

Awards and honors

Metcalfe has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors for his work on Ethernet:

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • IEEE Medal of Honor
  • Internet Hall of Fame inductee, 2013
  • IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, 1988
  • ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award
  • Marconi Prize, 2003
  • National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee, 2007
  • Computer History Museum Fellow Award, 2008

Predictions

Metcalfe infamously made several bold predictions that turned out incorrect:

  • In 1995, that the internet would suffer a "catastrophic collapse" in around a year.
  • That Linux, amongst other open source software, would be crushed by the release of Windows 2000.
  • That wireless networking would be foregone in the mid-1990s.
  • In 2006, that Windows and Linux would not be able to handle video.

Metcalfe's 1995 prediction about the internet collapse proved wrong, under which circumstances he promised to "eat his words." In front of his keynote speech audience at the 1997 International World Wide Web Conference, Metcalfe blended a printed copy of the column with his prediction and swallowed it, as promised.

This was last updated in June 2020

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