Photo and original diagram of the world's first ethernet cable

first ethernet cable.JPG

Behind an ordinary door in a nondescript room hosting several printers and copiers at PARC is the world's first Ethernet cable. In 1973, Bob Metcalfe sent an internal memo to his colleagues at Xerox proposing a local system of interacting workstations, files, and printers. The devices would all be linked by one coaxial cable, he said, and would run within a local area network. He called the system an Ether Network, or Ethernet. By 1976, there were over 100 devices linked into Metcalfe's local network, and it was even used to test out the world's first laser printer, which was being developed concurrently in another research facility within Xerox. Metcalfe and his assistant David Boggs published their findings in the Association for Computing Machinery later that year. The rest is history.

Below is a composite sketch of several diagrams Metcalfe drew and included in his original memo.


Published by Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.

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  1. And 36 years later, it still has one of the coolest names ever given to an IEEE standard. (FireWire comes a close second, in my book)

  2. “Radio Ether” on one of the sketches. That’s vision.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the idea of ethernet was based on radio… not unlike like packet radio, only transmitted over a coaxial wire rather than broadcast (which makes detecting collisions easier).

  3. Er,,, zuzu yes Ham Radio is the basis for the internet, but this is Local Area Network, a bit different.

  4. I see five N connectors in that box. That implies something, but I know not what. Perhaps we can’t see the sixth one?

    We have such stuff in our building here at the U of Arizona – a big Cabletron MT-800 hub is located on a shelf in the hallway above my office door. The cables have many tags instructing the facilities staff DO NOT REMOVE THIS CABLE! I guess they didn’t.

  5. Metcalfe has fantastic lettering skills. Wish more engineering diagrams looked that good.

  6. Wasn’t the research based off of the Aloha protocol which was wireless communications done in Hawaii?

  7. @Nixie, I believe that’s an additional connector in the bottom right corner, thought the bit we can see looks more like a BNC rather than N connector?

    Man, that diagram is awesome. This is another case where it would be amazing to speak to the originator back in 1972 and see what he would think of millions of people using a derivative of his little paper sketch. And how it’s basically the exact same, conceptually, 37 years later.

  8. DCulberson, Metcalfe is available for comment. He is not friendly to FOSS people, though, because he had the unfortunate experience of sitting next to Richard Stallman for several hours once. He came away conditioned to associate “free software” with horrifyingly bad hygiene, communalism, and utopian impracticality, and he is unlikely to change his mind easily.

  9. In this original vision, there was no need for hubs. Somehow once everything became balanced twisted pairs the “ether” became segmented into little mini-ethers held back from each other by digital logic. WiFi “radio ether” gives us back our unsegmented ether!

  10. I know everyone is getting teary-eyed over coax cable.. but that stuff caused me so much grief.. Long live twisted pair!

  11. Aether
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Jump to: navigation, search
    Sister project Look up aether or ether in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

    Aether (mythology) originally was the personification of the “upper sky”, space and heaven, in Greek mythology.

    The common cable providing the communication channel was likened to the ether and it was from this reference that the name “Ethernet” was derived.

  12. I’m with Cowmix, coax was a royal pain especially Thicknet. If I never see another vampire tap again it will be too soon.

    Also, I hope the nostalgia for “unsegmented ether” is tongue and cheek. Switches (not to be confused with hubs) are your friends.

  13. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.

  14. No hubs / switches needed?
    Sometime there were the single cable topologies with their known disadvantages… (will stop when broken anywhere or incorrectly terminated at the ends, everyone shares the bandwidth on the whole segment).
    The “Radio Ether” part of the scetch might be used to bust some patents on later wireless technologies due to prior art 😉

  15. #13 : That made me laugh (and cry) True, true… I know of that because I had to deal with Stallman in several different conferences I organized 😛

  16. I remember this well..
    and when you got it to work you were called a miracle worker…

  17. Yep, I think I still have some of that those same materials.. Perhaps it is time I discarded the ridgid cable – I guess it isn’t coming back after all… 😉
    Do you remember the install kit that DEC used to have to tap the main line – drill, template etc. I think the kit was $1000 or so.

  18. For the first 5 posters, packet radio was used as the design for ethernet: the method of spamming your packets and then retransmitting if people couldn’t read them (collisions).

    He means uses his ethernet protocol over the radio like the original packet radio design he was building off of. Ethernet is a protocol, not only a medium.

  19. That’s the best diagram as many have said so far I’ve ever seen this guy really hit the nail on the head as far as forecasting technology goes even if he realised it or not.

  20. I never had a theoretical education in networking, just a pragmatic one in what to connect where and so on.

    The first time I encountered a hub, I was a little bit baffled. Eventually, I realised that mentor’s explanation amounted to, “a network cable in a box” — which, accurate or not, is how I’ve thought of it ever since 🙂

  21. Thank You Bob.

    For ethernet, and for the memories – for some reason, searching for a coax cable fault in the crawlspace of locked ward in a mental hospital is the one that springs to mind…

    And thanks for the quote Rickyneck – Vale Hunter S. Thompson

  22. Yup, Ethernet and Token Ring are both related to Aloha modes, IIRC.

    And you can’t build arbitrarily-wide collision domains. Hubs are necessary over 500m for thicknet, 200m for thinnet, about 100m for UTP. The order of magnitude gives us reasonable collision backoff intervals for decent throughput under load, and I think the variation may have to do with the transmission-line properties of the medium and the need to reject reflected signals. (Of course UTP is a degenerate case of “collision domain”, but it’s still a transmission line.)

  23. Those connectors…
    They look to me like what we Brits used to call Post Office type 80. They were otherwise known as F & E, UHF or F connector, so many names for one plug! Much bigger than an N connector or a BNC (about 1 inch diameter) and those look like the newer type with solderless shields (still had to solder the inner). They were connected by screwing down the outer ring onto the chassis mounted socket (or line coupler as in the photo). Originally designed for rf (50 ohm) and television (75 ohm). I guess the impedance of the Ethernet variety could have been 92 ohms. Any takers on that?

  24. #30: correct me if i’m wrong (i’ve never tried) but wouldn’t a big splice between, say, 8 wires work just the same as a (non-collision-detecting) hub? In which case a hub is just a big splicebox repeater with LEDs on the wires?

  25. For those who are interested in this subject, you’ll definitely want to find and read Michael Hiltzik’s “Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age”. Yes, there’s an entire chapter on “The Bobbsey Twins Build a Network”. My favorite chapter, for a number of reasons, is “The Refugee.”

    Between that and “The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal,” you’ll be well-grounded in the history of how it all came about and who made it happen. And those are great, great resources to have on your bookshelf for times like these.

    I really, really, really want to meet these guys before it’s too late.

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