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3Com: Messages Through the Ether(net)

Another LCS progeny was not only profoundly influential, it also found dramatic commercial success. Bob Metcalfe gained his first exposure to packet-switching techniques while working at Project MAC in 1970. How he found himself at Project MAC is a story in itself: After graduating from MIT in 1969, Metcalfe entered a PhD program up the river at Harvard University. But Harvard didn’t have the money to pay Metcalfe’s fellowship. To make ends meet, he took a job at Project MAC building a packet-switched network interface card.

Packet-switching is a way of transmitting data that breaks a stream of bits into short segments, called packets; each packet is labeled with instructions for where to go. Packet-switching has caught on in a big way: It is the basis of the Internet.

After leaving Harvard and Project MAC in 1972, Metcalfe migrated west to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which was pioneering the first personal computers. In 1973, Metcalfe applied the principles of packet-switching to the invention of a local area network technology called Ethernet. Metcalfe convinced Xerox that to be successful, Ethernet would have to be made readily available to all players in the computer industry. Meanwhile, Metcalfe still felt the gravitational tug of MIT. In 1979, he took Dertouzos up on an invitation to return to Boston and work for LCS as a consultant. Metcalfe enlisted Digital Equipment Corp., Intel and Xerox to start the “Ethernet bandwagon”-a commitment to make Ethernet a standard of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “IEEE forced Xerox to make its Ethernet patents available for $1,000 per company forever,” says Metcalfe.

With the patents available at bargain-basement prices, and with Xerox still unwilling to push the technology into the general marketplace, Metcalfe seized the opportunity. He started a company and licensed the Ethernet technology. Metcalfe’s new company-3Com-built network interface cards for all kinds of computers. 3Com went public in March 1984; it now has a market capitalization of roughly $16 billion.

Metcalfe, who eventually left the company he started to become vice president for technology at the International Data Group (IDG) and a columnist in IDG’s weekly trade publication, InfoWorld, says that the MIT lab “had a great deal to do with the success of 3Com.” It’s not just that Project MAC was a pioneer in research on packet-switching, the technology at the heart of Ethernet. Equally important was the way LCS functioned as a base for Metcalfe to return to after leaving Xerox. It is doubtful that Metcalfe would have been able to enlist major companies to join his “bandwagon” were he not at an impartial institution.

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