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June 15, 2024

In June 1972, Bob Metcalfe, a 26-year-old engineer fresh out of graduate school, joined a new research lab in Palo Alto, California, and set out to build something almost no one could have imagined. Things: PCs.

After another engineer quit his job, Dr. Metcalfe was asked to develop a technology that could connect desktops in the office and send information between them. The result was Ethernet, a computer networking technology that will one day become an industry standard. For decades, it has connected PCs to servers, printers, and the Internet in corporate offices and homes around the world.

The Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest computer professional association, announced Wednesday that Dr. Metcalf, 76, will receive this year’s Turing Award for his work on Ethernet. Since 1966, the Turing Award, commonly known as the Nobel Prize in Computing, has awarded $1 million.

When Dr. Metcalfe arrived at Palo Alto Research Center (a division of Xerox Corporation, nicknamed PARC), one of the first things he did was connect the lab to the Arpanet, the wide area network that evolved into the modern Internet. Arpanet transfers information between about 20 academic and corporate laboratories across the country.

But when PARC researchers were designing their PC, the Alto, they realized they needed a networking technology to connect PCs and other devices within the office, not over long distances.

Graduate student Charles Simonyi began building a local area network he called Signet, short for Simonyi’s Unlimited Glory Network. But he was quickly moved to another project. So Mr. Simonyi developed a text editor that gave birth to modern word processors like Microsoft Word. Dr. Metcalf began working on the new network.

One afternoon in 1973, he was fiddling with a long cable in the basement of the PARC laboratory. As he struggled to send electrical pulses through the cables, another researcher offered to help.

The researcher is David Boggs, a Ph.D. student at nearby Stanford University, who recently joined the lab as an intern. Dr. Metcalfe and Dr. Boggs, who died last year, co-designed what they eventually called Ethernet.

“He was the perfect match for me,” Dr. Metcalf said after Dr. Boggs’ death. “I’m more of a concept artist, and he’s an engineer building the hardware in the background.” Dr. Metcalfe calls himself and his collaborators the “Bobbsey twins” of computing networking.

Borrowing ideas from the University of Hawaii’s radio-based network, ALOHAnet, Drs. Metcalfe and Dr. Boggs designed Ethernet as a technology that could work both wired and wirelessly. But the first network they built inside the PARC offices required cables.

“We want to make it wireless,” Dr. Metcalf said in an interview. “But we can’t have a zero wire. It would be too slow and too expensive.”

Over the next two decades, many of the technologies developed for the Alto project would become familiar parts of personal computing, including graphical user interfaces and laser printers as well as Ethernet and word processors. After Ethernet was codified as an industry standard in the 1980s and 1990s, it became the primary protocol for building networks in corporate offices.

The technology is also used in the home. In the late 1990s, it became the basis for Wi-Fi, a wireless networking standard used in offices and homes around the world.

“Almost everything you do online goes over Ethernet at some stage,” Mark Weber, a curator and director of the Internet History Project at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, said in an interview. “You’ve been using it.”

In 1979, Dr. Metcalfe founded a company called 3Com to commercialize Ethernet while Dr. Boggs remained at PARC as a researcher. Later, Dr. Boggs founded his own Ethernet company, LAN Media. Both companies were eventually sold to larger companies.

Over the decades, the Ethernet protocol has changed in countless ways. Very little of what Dr. Metcalfe and Dr. Boggs designed at PARC in the 1970s is still part of the technology. But the name – Ethernet – remains. In an industry with storied names, Ethernet stands out for its memorable features.

In the 19th century, the “ether” was considered a medium that permeates everything and transmits light waves throughout the universe. That theory was disproved at the turn of the last century, hence the name the two PARC researchers took for their project.

“The word became free,” Dr. Metcalf said, “so we borrowed it.”



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