Robert Metcalfe receives the 2023 Turing Award for the co-invention and commercialization of Ethernet technology

Congratulations: Networking is something that many people take for granted. Connecting a PC to a router to connect to the information superhighway is something that just works, so we don’t think about it. But the cord we connect is the basis of it all, and without the work of Bob Metcalfe, you wouldn’t be reading this article.

The Turing Prize is considered the most prestigious in the field of computer science and is sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Computing”. It is named after the famous computer scientist Alan Turing. The Association for Computing Machinery annually awards it to individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of computer science.

These years winner Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet technology. Metcalfe is Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently a Computer Science Fellow at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (CSAIL).

Ethernet is a networking technology that has revolutionized the way computers communicate with each other. It allows devices to connect to a local network and share resources such as printers and files. Today, Ethernet equipment and its protocol are the most widely used networking technologies in the world, forming the backbone of the Internet.

Metcalfe’s work on Ethernet began in the early 1970s when he was a researcher at Xerox PARC. At that time, there was a need for a new network technology that could connect the company’s growing number of computer terminals. The problem that Metcalfe and his team faced is often taken for granted: throughput.

In the early network, each computer had a dedicated communication channel. Thus, the connection was expensive and difficult, especially as the number of computers on the network grew. Ethernet allows multiple computers to use the same communication channel, which reduces costs and simplifies network management.

The team initially deployed the technology inside Xerox. Metcalfe commercialized the technology in 1980 and other companies soon began to adopt it. Subsequently, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standardized Ethernet in 1983, beginning the world of connectivity as we know it today.

Interestingly, the name Ethernet comes from a now-famous memorandum that Metcalfe wrote in 1973. In it, he described a “broadcast network” in which information is distributed “over the air (sky or air)”, so it can be said that he imagined Wi-Fi decades before its invention. Of course, the introduction of Ethernet led to numerous advances in communications beyond WiFi, including “the obsolete telephone twisted-pair, optical fiber … and even power networks replacing coax as ‘ether'”.

Congratulations to Robert Metcalfe on receiving the prestigious Turing Award for his pioneering contributions to computer networking and the development of Ethernet technology. His pioneering work revolutionized how computers communicate and laid the foundation for modern computer networks.

Image credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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