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The 40th Anniversary of Ethernet

Celebrating Ethernet's 40th anniversary, IEEE 802 Ethernet innovation, and IEEE-SA's pursuit of technology excellence.


In 1973, Robert (Bob) Metcalfe was a recent Harvard Ph.D. graduate working at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In the course of his work training US military personnel to use the world’s first operational packet switching network – known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) – he often traveled to Washington D.C.

While staying at a friend’s apartment in the nation’s capitol, the young engineer came across a book of conference proceedings from the 1970 American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS) conference. In the proceedings was a hidden gem – a paper written by Norman Abramson entitled “The Aloha System – Another Alternative for Computer Communications.” It described the development of an innovative radio-based network of computers that came to be known as ALOHAnet. And although he disagreed with some aspects of the technology model, the paper quickly caught Metcalfe’s attention.

Inspired by the ALOHAnet paper, upon his return to PARC and with the help of David R. Boggs, he began putting his thoughts to paper. Using an IBM Selectric Typewriter with an Orator ball, Metcalfe typed a memo and sketched a quick schematic that would forever change both networking and the world at large. And so on May 22, 1973 Ethernet was born. After months of effort built on Metcalfe’s ideas and Boggs’ help in designing and debugging the necessary network hardware, the first working Ethernet prototype, a 2.94 Mbps CSMA/CD system connecting more than 100 workstations on a 1 Km cable, went live on November 11, 1973. Based on its demonstrated success, Xerox would go on to patent Ethernet in 1975.

In 1979, Metcalfe left PARC to found a new company called 3Com, and successfully convinced Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Intel, and Xerox to cooperatively promote Ethernet as a standard. The following year, the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) formed a committee to develop local area networking standards: the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standard Committee. Led by Maris Graube, the committee began defining and specifying the physical and lower software layers for wired Ethernet, and on June 23, 1983 IEEE 802.3 was approved as a standard. Through the work of IEEE-SA working groups and committees, Ethernet continued to evolve, eventually growing to encompass higher bandwidth speeds, a diverse array of physical media, and new variants like 10GBASE-T.

In August 2012, IEEE joined other leading global organizations, including the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Society and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), to announce its support of OpenStand, external link a jointly developed set of principles establishing a modern paradigm for global, open standards. Under OpenStand, the economics of global markets in conjunction with technology innovation help facilitate continued worldwide open standards development and deployment, including standards for the next generation of Ethernet speeds of 100G, 400G, and beyond.