speaking of wasabi, most weeks we close the show by marking the anniversaries of great moments in engineering history. So, Sherman, step right this way into the Wayback machine, which we’ve set for…
…May 13, 1980. That was the day Ethernet officially began to take over the world. The basic idea for Ethernet was devised a few years earlier, in 1973, by Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs, both then working at Xerox Park, the research operation that was the birthplace of so many of the basic concepts of modern computing – everything from graphical user interfaces to the mouse to…, well, Ethernet.
“The ether” was a concept popular in the 1800s. It was supposed to have been a transitive medium through which electricity worked. It was bad postulate that finally died in the early 1900s, but memory of it lingered long enough for Boggs and Metcalfe to glom onto it and jokingly apply it to the local area networking standard they created in 1973.
By the late 1970s, IBM had created a proprietary LAN technology called Token Ring, and IBM had the marketing muscle to establish it as a de facto standard.
Digital Equipment Corp. had recognized the need for a LAN standard, and was developing one of its own, but the results weren’t fully satisfactory. Digital Equipment’s legendary vice president of technology, Gordon Bell, knew about ring architectures. and he thought they had drawbacks. He didn’t want to use IBM’s Token Ring, so when Xerox showed up with Ethernet, which had all the advantages and none of the drawbacks of Token Ring, he was sold.
Intel, meanwhile, had identified the need for computer communications chips of some kind, but it had none in the works. When Intel engineers found out about Ethernet, they were primed to make chips to support it. Andy Grove believed he could convince IBM to drop Token Ring and adopt Ethernet. Well, he was right, but he was also off by about 20 years.
Bonus though, bonus for Ethernet: Xerox was offering it as an open standard.
On May 13, 1980, Xerox, Intel and Digital announced an consortium backing Ethernet. Xerox adopted it for its word processors, and Digital Equipment made it an element of its DECnet networking system. Intel, meanwhile, created the first Ethernet chip, the 82586. With volume came economies of scale, which drove the price of Ethernet down rapidly. That was all the start that Ethernet needed.
Ethernet eventually eclipsed all competitors. Here’s Bob Metcalfe, from a speech he gave in 2016, about the LAN wars.
BOB METCALFE: And Ethernet won. So we beat a bunch of non-standard ones that had beaten us to market. And then we started fighting the standard ones, the IEEE802 Committee was formed to standardize auxiliary networks. General Motors showed up with a token bus. I said, “Guys, you guys should build cars. Let us build the networks.”
And then IBM, when then was 95% of the computer market, they said, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re going to do Token Ring.” So it took us… This one died quickly, and GM subsequently went bankrupt. It took us 20 years to kill this monster right here.
And the reason we won is, we were native mode. We understood… You know, there are seven levels of the internet. We understood which level we were at. So we kept things simple because we knew the higher-level protocols would take care… Ethernet has no acknowledgments. It just has packets. It’s the higher-level protocols that say, That’s an acknowledgment. So we were able to be cheaper and faster.
BRIAN SANTO: In fact, looking back, Ethernet was among the very first open-standard success stories, providing an inspiration for subsequent open-standard and open-source technologies that have since become popular.
So that’s it for today’s episode. Thanks for listening. The Weekly Briefing is available on iTunes, Android, Spotify and Stitcher, but if you get to the podcast via our website, you’ll find a transcript along with links to the stories we refer to, along with the occasional photo and video. Visit www.eetimes.com and click where it says RADIO to find the full archive of podcasts.
This podcast is Produced by AspenCore Studio. It was Engineered by Taylor Marvin and Greg McRae at Coupe Studios. The Segment Producer was Kaitie Huss.
I’m Brian Santo. See you next week.