The Voices of Ethernet: Preserving Ethernet’s Oral History
Peter Jones, Ethernet Alliance Chair
A World-Changing Idea
Ethernet was invented in 1973. I was 9.
Ethernet was the brainchild of Bob Metcalf, David Boggs, and their team at Xerox PARC, and it changed the world. PARC was working towards “a computer on every desk” (the Xerox Alto ), and they wanted to find a way to link them together to, amongst other things, share the world’s first laser printer (the Scanned Laser Output Terminal).
The first Ethernet ran at 2.9 Mb/s. Why 2.9Mb/s? It was a multiple of the Alto clock speed, and they could avoid adding a clock crystal to what was already a very full board. It used “fat yellow coax” in a bus structure using “vampire taps” and the bus ran down the corridor to connect the various network devices. The nice thing about the vampire taps was that you could add or remove devices from the bus without interrupting other users.1
Driving the Communication Revolution
Since then Ethernet has grown from 2.9Mb/s to 400Gb/s, added twisted pair copper and optical fiber as media, grown to a more 5600 page standard (IEEE 802.3-2018) through 66 amendment or revision projects, and sold billions upon billions of ports. Ethernet has become the foundational layer of the networks we all use in our work and private lives, even if most people can’t recognize an Ethernet port. I’m pretty confident this page traveled over Ethernet on its way to you.
Preserving Ethernet’s Oral History
Why am I telling you all this? 2020 marked the 40th year of the first Ethernet standards, and with each passing anniversary, the importance of preserving Ethernet’s history grows. Because people communicate with stories, and inspired by StoryCorps, the Ethernet Alliance decided to start collecting and publishing the foundational stories of Ethernet in the words of the people who were there at the time. The Voices of Ethernet, is spoken history, that goes beyond the “who, what, when” of typical historical records and aims to capture nuances that come only when engaging with the real people behind Ethernet’s story. We wanted to get a sense of these people, the problems that had to be solved, the solutions that evolved, and how all these elements worked together to create the Ethernet ecosystem. The goal of The Voices of Ethernet is to capture the conversation you might have had if you had met these industry luminaries over coffee or at a bar, to bring the history of the technology to life, especially for those of us who work with Ethernet every day.
We are launching The Voices of Ethernet with interviews from Bob Metcalf (“the father of Ethernet”), Bob Grow (former IEEE 802.3 working group chair) and Gary Robinson (creator of the IEEE 802 “dot” groups). Over time we plan to expand The Voices of Ethernet to include more of the voices that were key in Ethernet’s development, along with today’s technology builders and implementers from across the Ethernet ecosystem.
It’s truly a privilege to be able to speak with these luminaries of Ethernet and get their view of the technology, its evolution and future prospects. I hope you enjoy watching these interviews as much as I enjoyed recording them.
Ethernet Alliance Chair
- If you want to see 10BASE5 in action, take a look at “Retro 10base5 Thicknet and 10base2 Thinnet network”.