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The Invention of Ethernet

written by: Ada Stoy•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 3/9/2010

Bob Metcalfe of Xerox Corporation invented the Ethernet in 1973. Learn more about how this happened and how the Ethernet evolved later.

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    How Ethernet Was Invented

    The official birthday of Ethernet was May 22, 1973 when Robert M. "Bob" Metcalfe reported that he had managed to connect devices to one another. This happened in the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) of Xerox Corporation. Mr. Metcalfe was working on a project to design and test networking, which would allow PARC's computers to print with the first laser printer, which was currently under development by Xerox. So, actually, it is laser printers we need to thank for the invention of the Ethernet.

    There were two main challenges Mr. Metcalfe had to face: the demand for a fast network and the ability to connect hundreds of computers. At that time most buildings had no computers at all, not to mention hundreds of them, but it could be foreseen that relatively soon hundreds of computers in a building would have become common. Mr. Metcalfe managed to define both the physical aspects of cabling and the standards that impose the rules of communication over the cable. Many of his original concepts haven't changed even to today, and even modern Ethernet networks are built using the same principles.

    One interesting aspect of the invention of the Ethernet is related to its name. Ethernet comes from ether– the component, which was thought to be everywhere in space– passive but omnipresent. In older theories, ether was the medium through which electromagnetic waves are propagated and light from the Sun comes to the Earth. This belief about ether was common in the early 1800s, but a century later, thanks to the advance of science, it was concluded that ether doesn't exist. However, the properties of ether were so fascinating and so similar to what the newly invented type of network was supposed to be (omnipresent, passive, and a medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves in the form of data packets), that the inventors of the Ethernet thought the name “ether network" suited it perfectly. This is how Ethernet got its name.

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    How Ethernet Evolved Later

    One of the most impressive things about the invention of the Ethernet is that even today the original design of Mr. Metcalfe is the basis of Ethernet operation. For instance, the packet format is left intact over the years. Of course, there are many modifications and improvements made to it, but the core stays the same.

    The original Ethernet design included a single cable. All the devices on the network were attached to this single cable and once they got attached, they had the ability to communicate with any other device there. The idea was brilliant because this way devices could be attached and detached from the network as required and this didn't demand any other changes to the rest of the network.

    One of the things that evolved over time is speed. As Mr. Metcalfe recalls, back in the 1970s they were working on 2.94 megabits per second and this was considered very, very fast. Now 10-gigabit Ethernet is not an exception and 40- and 100-megabit Ethernet is slowly being adopted.

    However, if we forget about speeds, most of the other aspects of Ethernet are the same as they were at the time when they were invented. Ethernet might have seen modifications but the Ethernet basics and the way Ethernet works have passed the test of time.