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Bob Metcalfe, Mastermind Behind Ethernet, to Speak at COSM 2021

An engineer and entrepreneur, he considers his work on Ethernet his "good fortune"

This November, COSM 2021 will feature some of the best minds in business, science, and technology to tackle questions about and problems with the future intersection of these fields.

Bob Metcalfe is an engineer and an entrepreneur, most famously known for his involvement in the invention of the Ethernet in the 1970s, what he has called “the plumbing of the internet to customers.” For this work, he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in addition to the IEEE Medal of Honor. He went on to co-found 3Com, formulate a law named after himself (more on that later), and become the Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin where he teaches today.

Bob Metcalfe

“The story of Ethernet goes back…to May 22, 1973 when I wrote a memo at the Xerox Palo Alto research center describing how Ethernet would work and naming it,” explains Bob Metcalfe.

He and his colleagues settled on the name “Ether,” borrowed from the physics world.

“In the nineteenth century, physicists believed that there was some medium between the sun and the earth which they called the ‘luminiferous ether,’ an omnipresent, completely passive medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves. We felt that this coax through the ceiling in 1973 was going to go everywhere and it was going to be completely passive and it was going to be the medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves, namely the data packets that we wanted our personal computers to exchange.”

Interview with Bob Metcalfe, “The History of Ethernet,” December 14, 2006

What started out as a memo in the offices of Xerox became a wildly successful technology. It is “now the most widely-installed LAN protocol and an international computer industry standard,” writes ThoughtCo.

“It was my good fortune to be the first person in history given the job of networking a building full of personal computers,” says Metcalfe. “You have to remember in 1973, there were no personal computers.”

Metcalfe also authored Metcalfe’s law, called as such by George Gilder in 1993. Metcalfe has called it his “attempt to quantify the network effect,” and it goes like this: The value of a network goes up as the square of the number of users or attachments. Or, as Gilder explains:

…he is the author of what I will call Metcalfe’s law of the telecosm, showing the magic of interconnections: connect any number, “n,” of machines – whether computers, phones or even cars – and you get “n” squared potential value. Think of phones without networks or cars without roads. Conversely, imagine the benefits of linking up tens of millions of computers and sense the exponential power of the telecosm.

Indeed, the power of the telecosm reproduces on a larger scale – by interconnecting computers – the exponential yield of the microcosm, a law describing the near magical effect of interconnecting transistors on chips of silicon: As increasing numbers of transistors are packed ever closer together, the transistors run faster, cooler, cheaper and better. Metcalfe’s law suggests that a similar spiral of gains is available in the telecosm of computer communications.

George Gilder, “Metcalf’s Law and Legacy” originally published at Forbes

Metcalfe’s work on Ethernet continues to have an impact today. In 2018, he predicted that the concept of storage for the internet would be useful in clean energy. “The internet, at the beginning, had no storage in it,” he explained to Zpryme. “It was the old telephone network, which had no storage. But now, it’s full of storage. You have terabytes on your servers and your iPhones.” By analogy, he extrapolated that “one of the elements of solving energy will be adding energy storage.”

At COSM 2021 this November 10-12, Metcalfe will address two topics: Blockchain and the New COSM Architecture, and the question “Is It the End for Silicon Valley?”.

The future is full of potential as technologies that we have been working with and relying on for decades continue to evolve. Register now for COSM 2021 to reserve your seat and be in the center of these exciting conversations. The best deal for your ticket is before this Sunday, October 31.

Caitlin Bassett

Caitlin Bassett was a Policy Analyst and Communications Liaison for the Center for Science & Culture and the Center on Wealth & Poverty. Her main areas of focus are in Big Tech and its impact on human freedom, as well as homelessness and mental illness. In her free time, she enjoys delving into Lewis and Tolkien, cosmology, and running around historical sites on the East Coast. She graduated from Liberty University in 2017 with her Bachelor’s in Politics and Policy.

Bob Metcalfe, Mastermind Behind Ethernet, to Speak at COSM 2021