Technical Terms and Definitions

Bob Metcalfe - People

Robert M. "Bob" Metcalfe was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1946 and grew up living on Long Island. By his own admission, at the age of ten he wanted to become an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He in fact did enter MIT in 1964 and graduated in 1969 with bachelors degrees in electrical engineering and business management. He did his first net work as captain of the MIT Varsity Tennis Team. In 1970, Metcalfe received a masters degree in applied mathematics from Harvard University, and his Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard in 1973. His doctoral dissertation, written while conducting research on packet switching in the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) and Aloha computer networks in MIT's project MAC, is now being republished.

In 1972, while working on his Ph.D. at Harvard, Metcalfe began working for Xerox Corporation in their Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). PARC was a breeding ground of genius and innovation, serving as the birth-place of the PC, graphical user interface (GUI), and page-description language (PDL); however, it was not the place where these innovations were developed into successful products.

It was at PARC, in 1973, that Bob Metcalfe and D.R. Boggs invented Ethernet, the local area networking (LAN) technology that turns PCs into communication tools by linking them together. In 1976 Metcalfe and Boggs published a paper titled, "Ethernet: Distributed Packet-Switching for Local Computer Networks." The invention of Ethernet preceded the personal computer, yet it was a breakthrough in computer networking that would eventually tie together 50 million PCs worldwide. In addition to defining the physical media and connections, Ethernet defined how data is transmitted across a local area network (LAN) at 10 megabits per second. Ethernet allows PCs and workstations from different manufacturers to communicate by using agreed-upon standards for sending packets. Of his experiences at PARC, Metcalfe said, "I was given all the equipment I would ever need to do my work. Best of all, I got to work with other geniuses."

In 1976, Metcalfe moved to the Xerox Systems Development Division and managed the microprocessor and communication developments that would eventually lead to the Xerox Star workstation. Star was the first PC to include a bit-map screen, mouse, what-you-see-is-what-you-get(wysiwyg) word processing, Ethernet, and software to include text and graphics in the same document.

While at PARC, Metcalfe began teaching part-time at Stanford University. He taught a course on distributed computing and left in 1983 as a Consulting Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering.

In 1979, Metcalfe left Xerox and founded 3Com Corporation in Santa Clara, California. His purpose in forming 3Com was to promote PC LANs and Ethernet as the standard. Although he was unable to persuade IBM to use Ethernet as a standard, he did bring together Digital Equipment, Intel, and Xerox and made Ethernet the most widely used LAN.

Metcalfe served in many capacities at 3Com - CEO, President, Chairman of the Board, and Division General Manager; however, according to him, his greatest accomplishment came as head of sales and marketing where he increased sales from zero to $1 million per month. Under his guidance, 3Com, which he named for three words - computer, communication, and compatibility - became a Fortune 500 corporation.

In 1990, he retired from 3Com. Outside of the 3Com headquarters in Santa Clara stands a monument to Bob Metcalfe. In 1995, the famous Candlestick Park in San Francisco was renamed 3Com Park. Bob Metcalfe's impact on the world of computers, and most especially on the transformation of the PC from being a data processor to a communication device, had been huge. He had received many awards for his contributions, including the prestigious Grace Murray Hopper Award in 1980 from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 1988 from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). However, despite his accomplishments, in 1990, Bob Metcalfe faced a fork in the road. In a 1990 interview with PC Week magazine he said, "It annoys me that 80 percent of journalists are registered Democrats. The journalistic field has a very strange view of itself. What it considers mainstream, I consider left wing. I've thought of becoming a right-wing journalist, just to add some balance."

Beginning in 1991, he spent a year as a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University in England. Upon his return, he began his career in journalism by writing for Computerworld, Communications Week, Digital Media, Network Computing, and Technology Review. In 1993 he became Vice-president of Technology for the International Data Group, parent company of InfoWorld Magazine, and began writing "From the Ether," a weekly column on networking, for InfoWorld. It is now syndicated worldwide.

As a journalist, Metcalfe irreverently attacks the computer industry and encourages change. With the popularity of networks and the Internet, one of his observations became known as Metcalfe's Law. It states that a network's value grows proportionately with its number of users. In one of his columns in December 1995, Metcalfe predicted the 1996 collapse of the Internet and said that the information superhighway would become no more than using Federal Express to ship CD-ROMs back and forth.

In 1995, Metcalfe received his first journalism award, the Public Understanding of Science Award, from the San Francisco Exploratorium, and in the same year he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1996, he added to his many awards when he received the IEEE Medal of Honor.

In 1996, he also became the chairman of ACM97s, the 50th anniversary conference of the ACM, to examine the next 50 years of computing. Commenting on the conference, Metcalfe said, "ACM97 aims to do more than brainstorm about the future. If we do a good job, we can change the future."

As one of the pioneers in the computer industry and computer networking, Bob Metcalfe is in touch with the people who determine the future direction of communications and information delivery. In 1995, he began gathering industry leaders and the bright, lesser known people in the industry to his house for evenings of serious discussion. While he has had an impact on 50 million people with Ethernet, as a journalist and futurist he continues to be an important force in the world of computers. For the man who just wanted to be an electrical engineer at MIT, and who now serves on the MIT board of trustees, it has already been a tremendous career, with no end in sight.