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A Profile of Robert Metcalfe

 


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Robert Metcalfe is famous for changing the world of computer networks, in particular co-founding ethernet alongside David Boggs. Ethernet has been a significant breakthrough in computer technology since the 1980’s.

Metcalfe’s student days saw him educated at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and from Harvard, from where he graduated in 1970. After graduating Metcalfe attempted to persuade Harvard to let him connect them to the ARPAnet, the packet switching network that was a precursor to the internet. They refused and he therefore joined the team working for Project MAC at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. Project MAC stood for Project for Mathematics and Computation and it produced groundbreaking research in operating systems and artificial intelligence. At its inception it had received a $2 million grant from the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to help it on its way.

The next step for Robert Metcalfe was to join Xeron, where Ethernet technology was developed between 1973 and 1974. It was partly inspired by ALOHAnet, the first wireless packet data network which Metcalfe had studies at college. He left Xeron in 1979 but convinced the company to work in partnership with Digital Equipment Corporation the Intel to establish Ethernet as a standard. This partnership became known as DIX and they achieved their objective of developing Ethernet into the standard for connecting computers over a short distance. The standard specified ten megabit per second Ethernet with a forty-eight bit destination and source address and a global sixteen-bit Ethernet type field.

After leaving Xeron Metcalfe formed a new company, 3Com, alongside Howard Charney, Greg Shaw and Bruce Borden. 3Com became a manufacturer of computer network equipment with the name coming from “the 3 coms”; computers, communication and compatibility. They produced Ethernet technology and a range of software to provide shared services over local area networks. Metcalfe left 3Com in 1990 after a dispute over the contest to become the new CEO, a post Metcalfe contested but did not win. He became a writer and publisher, writing for InfoWorld amongst other publications.

While Robert Metcalfe is clearly a very intelligent man, in his writing career he has been guilty of the odd bad prediction. The first of these was his prediction that wireless mobile wouldn’t last beyond the mid-1990’s, something that has, in fact, gone from strength to strength since. It may seem very short sighted now but at the time he claimed that it would be much like bathrooms, in that they are still plumbed, and computers would remained wired for the same reason. Another incorrect prediction meant he had to eat his own words… literally. In 1995 he predicted the internet would collapse in the following year and promised to eat his words if he was wrong. When this proved to be incorrect he put his column where he’d published this prediction through a blender and proceeded to drink the contents. Another incorrect prediction saw him state that Linux would disappear post-Windows 2000 in one of his many attacks on open source technology, something he likened to communism.

Robert Metcalfe has been instrumental in the world of computerisation and technology and is seen as a crucial figure in the success of computer networks. Due to this he has received many awards including the National Medal for Technology and the IEEE Medal of Honour. He is currently the Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of Innovation at the University of Texas.

Andrew Marshall ©

Fast Ethernet has been crucial in the development of computer technology.

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