Ethernet Invention Revealed the Origins of Innovation

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-05-26

Ethernet Invention Revealed the Origins of Innovation

PALO ALTO, Calif.—There in front of me were the first boxy Ethernet transceivers that Dave Boggs built by hand 40 years ago when he and Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet.

One of them was attached to a length of RG-8 coaxial cable using a vampire tap, a type of connector that pierced the insulation on the side of the cable. This was the original Ethernet, displayed in front of an enlarged drawing of Bob Metcalfe's original drawing of this ground-breaking innovation.

But there in a small room with many other objects invented at the Palo Alto Research Center was what many of the attendees at the Ethernet Innovation Summit referred to as a shrine to Ethernet, perhaps one of the most significant advances in communications in history.

In the same room were the Alto computer, which had the first mouse, the first graphical display and the first GUI. From PARC came inventions as diverse as the laser printer and a water-filtration system with no moving parts.

But earlier in the day I found the real insight into innovation when I enjoyed lunch and a long conversation with Radia Perlman, who made internetworking possible when she invented Spanning Tree, and later in a long conversation with Metcalfe and Boggs that ranged from ham radio to the future of networking. Finally Glenn Ricart, founder and CTO of US Ignite, sat down at my table to talk about how his organization fosters innovation.

Even though our discussions were wide-ranging, they always circled around the atmosphere of innovation. While talking about what each inventor did and what they expected to see happen, I also learned a little about what it takes to allow innovation to happen. What I found was remarkable.

Innovation, despite what you hear about PARC or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or other centers for innovation, doesn't require a center. What it requires is time and support and the pressure to make something happen. But like the pressure that ultimately creates a diamond, it doesn't need to be specific; it just needs to be there.

Many, perhaps most of the inventors and innovators I've spoken with didn't necessarily set out to invent the device they are known for. Dave Boggs, for example, was at PARC for an unrelated project when Bob Metcalfe found him and asked him to help build the Ethernet transceiver when he had a chance. Boggs, working from notes, an out-of-date schematic and a set of parameters, proceeded to help invent Ethernet while also working on the project he was at PARC to accomplish.


Ethernet Invention Revealed the Origins of Innovation

Perlman, meanwhile, was discussing how to design the algorithms necessary to allow Ethernet to work outside a single network. Then, later that day, the answer came to her in a poem. "I was surprised how simple it was," she said. Spanning Tree lives on as part of the foundation of Ethernet along with its packet format.

In addition to pressure to produce something—even if it's not the innovation itself—there seems to be a need to think about a problem. The people who created these bedrock inventions were able to do it because they were able to think. But it also meant that they had the background that gave them the ability to put their thoughts into action and the opportunity to spend time with other inventors so that they had a reason to think.

But what PARC offers is all those things, and puts the inventors into an environment so that innovation is fostered. PARC also offers funding to pay for the supplies and services that make it so that the inventor isn't stuck raising money and it supports those innovators so that they can realize their dreams.

But not everyone can work at PARC. Fortunately, innovation can happen anywhere given the right stimulus, including pressure, need and access to sufficient resources. Of course, they need encouragement. This is where organizations such as US Ignite come in.

This organization, chartered by Congress and funded by donations as a nonprofit, distributes money and help to what Ricart likes to call "communities" that can make innovation possible. These communities may be municipalities, industry groups or other groups bonded by a common thread.

Ricart told me of a group in Chattanooga, Tenn., that has developed the means to use the city's Gigabit Ethernet and a local cloud service to offload 3D rendering to the cloud so that it can be accomplished using a PC or a tablet that could never do this using only their own on-board resources. He then showed me a 3D image of a head on his Android phone that can spin around at the touch of a finger.

The spirit of innovation, it seems, does not reside in Palo Alto or Cambridge or in any other location, but rather in the minds of people who seek to do something new and interesting, and who feel the pressure to make it happen.

Could Ethernet have been invented somewhere besides PARC? Of course, but PARC provided the environment that encouraged it. That environment can exist anywhere, as long as the conditions are right and there is the need.


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