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The History and Significance of Ethernet Technology

When and Why Ethernet Was Invented

Ethernet traces its origins back to 1973 when it was invented at Xerox PARC by Robert Metcalfe as part of his doctoral dissertation on "packet network interconnection." Metcalfe was exploring how to allow computers to communicate over local networks, foreseeing that office networks would one day be useful.

Working with colleagues David Boggs, Butler Lampson, and Chuck Thacker, Metcalfe developed a standard that used coaxial cables and network interface cards to connect computers together into a local area network (LAN). They called their standard "Ethernet" as a reference to the luminiferous ether concept from physics – like ether was once believed to allow light to travel through space, Ethernet technology would allow data to travel between computers.

The Problem Ethernet Was Trying to Solve

In the early 1970s, computers were massive machines used for limited functions by one user at a time. There was no universal concept of networking between computers or sharing resources and information. Xerox recognized that connecting their office computers together could enable better information sharing and allow for costly peripherals like printers to be shared rather than duplicated across every terminal.

Robert Metcalfe focused his dissertation on finding an efficient way to allow for this communication between computers, foreseeing that networking would become essential in the future as computers evolved from single terminals into interconnected systems. His Ethernet standard for that local networking marked one of the earliest attempts at digitally networking computers, outside of niche military or academic projects like ARPANET which focused on long-distance networking across sites rather than within a single building.

Standardizing a Networking Protocol

After prototyping their technology using early versions of TCP/IP, Metcalfe and his team faced resistance to their unconventional approach of allowing any terminal or computer to connect to the network instead of using centralized mainframes. But recognizing the enormous potential for computer networking, Xerox pushed forward with refining and standardizing their Ethernet protocol in conjunction with vendors like Intel and DEC who saw promise in the concept.

In 1980, the joint efforts led to Ethernet II, one of the first widespread standardized LAN protocols which detailed everything from cabling standards to frame formats that allowed any vendor to create compatible network hardware. Within a few years after that codification of Ethernet, a market emerged for Ethernet components used to retrofit existing computer systems with network capabilities previously unavailable commercially.

How Ethernet Works

On a technical level, Ethernet connections require an Ethernet port and cable to provide a wired connection between a computer (or other device) and an Ethernet hub, switch, or router. The Ethernet cable contains twisted pairs of wires which help shield it from electromagnetic interference that could disrupt data transmission.

CSMA/CD Protocol

For transmitting data across Ethernet wires, Metcalfe‘s standard employed an algorithm called CSMA/CD (Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Detection). This protocol allows devices on the Ethernet network to "listen" for signal activity before trying to send packets over the common transmission medium (the physical Ethernet cable).

By sensing when data collisions might occur because another device is transmitting, CSMA/CD lets the devices wait a random delay before retrying the transmission, thereby coordinating shared access to the network and recovering quickly from simultaneous signals that interfere with each other. This clever protocol allowed for a reliable "listen before talk" approach to data transmissions.

Full-Duplex and Auto-Sensing Technology

While early Ethernet used a half-duplex system of alternating transmission directions over the cable, modern Ethernet employs full-duplex communication over the wire pairs allowing simultaneous bidirectional transfer. Auto-sensing technology enables each end of the connection to automatically swap between the fastest speeds supported by both sides, selecting the optimal data rates between 10Mbps up through a speedy 10Gbps for cutting-edge networks.

The Ethernet Frame Format

Each data transmission on an Ethernet network is broken up into discrete frames (see diagram) which allow the networking hardware to efficiently route and reconstruct packets. Key fields within the frame provide identification details for reassembling messages as chunks arrive and for detecting errors in the transmitted content using checksums.

Analyzing this Ethernet frame format which has expanded from early 1980s specifications allows us to see both the legacy technology still underpinning modern networking as well advanced capabilities layered atop Metcalfe‘s initial concepts. The incredible scalability of Ethernet from low-bandwidth office networks up to lightning quick core internet backbones relies heavily on data encapsulation schemes envisioned by those pioneering PARC researchers.

The Expansion of Ethernet Standards Over Time

While proprietary Ethernet standards date back to 1973, public standardizations of the technology began emerging in 1980 which lead to an explosion of new products and network installations. Here is a brief timeline of pivotal moments in Ethernet history:

1980 – DIX (Digital/Intel/Xerox) Ethernet II standard is published codifying details from speeds to cabling and frame format for vendors

1982 – 3Com ships first commercial Ethernet adapter card, launching an entire interoperable market around Ethernet hardware

1985 – There are an estimated 100,000 Ethernet nodes installed on networks around the world

1995 – Windows 95 provides built-in Ethernet support, greatly accelerating public adoption of home networking technology

1999 – Gigabit Ethernet specification is announced allowing astonishing 1,000 Mbps transmission rates

2010 – 10 Gigabit Ethernet adapters begin shipping as networks continue scaling exponential speed gains

Each iteration expanded Ethernet‘s capabilities while retaining backwards compatibility – a testament to the enduring usefulness of many fundamental aspects pioneered by Metcalfe decades earlier.

The Significance of Ethernet for the Internet

While Wi-Fi wireless connections are more commonplace today, especially in homes and offices, the development of Ethernet technology played a crucial role in the growth of computer networking and the Internet:

  • Ethernet allowed local area networks to be connected within offices and buildings when networking was still new.
  • As Ethernet speeds accelerated from early standards of 3 Mbps to 100+ Mbps in the 1990s, it provided the data transfer backbone necessary for early Internet connections.
  • The mass adoption of Ethernet meant computer and device manufacturers began including Ethernet ports and network chips standard, paving the way for networking plug-and-play simplicity down the road.
  • New devices like smart TVs, game systems, even appliances can now connect to home networks seamlessly thanks to that foundation.

Rapid Growth in Commercial Ethernet Adoption

Beyond enabling local networks, Ethernet technology formed the backbone of early corporate and consumer internet access rollouts. Following the 1980 standard publication, vendors scrambled to release Ethernet components to retrofit networking capabilities into the massive installed base of existing computers with no ability to connect previously.

Adoption ramped very quickly as companies realized the benefits of networking – by 1985 an estimated 900,000 computers had Ethernet capabilities from network interface cards produced by over 50 different vendors. The market was evolving rapidly beyond just niche technical and academic circles to mass consumer audiences. Before long Ethernet ports became a standard assumption like USB or analog phone connectors today rather than an exotic add-on.

Source: Hobbes‘ Internet Timeline

The Importance of Interoperability

Unlike proprietary networking approaches by individual tech giants, Ethernet relied on industry-wide interoperable standards any vendor could implement. This allowed the technology to spread much faster without lock-in effects or costly incompatibility issues. By encouraging Ethernet adoption through flexibility and collaboration, Metcalfe‘s open standard approach helped Ethernet become the global networking phenom that it remains today.

So while Wi-Fi gets more consumer attention today, Ethernet laid the indispensable groundwork that allowed local and Internet protocol networking to evolve to where it is today. The next time your phone connects seamlessly to your home Wi-Fi, consider the Progress built on Ethernet‘s shoulders to make that convenience plug-and-play to users.

Ethernet vs Wi-Fi – Which is Better?

When it comes to speed, reliability, and latency, Ethernet connections still have some advantages over Wi-Fi:

  • Speed: Gigabit Ethernet remains faster than even the fastest Wi-Fi 6 standard.
  • Reliability: Ethernet eliminates interference from wireless signals leading to fewer droppages.
  • Latency: The consistent wired connection means Ethernet sees lower latency vital for applications like competitive gaming.

Of course, Wi-Fi offers one big benefit Ethernet can‘t match – wireless mobility. So Ethernet remains popular in office networks where the fastest, most robust connection is needed. For most home users, the convenience of Wi-Fi trumps the modest reliability gains. Gamers sometimes run Ethernet cables to where they play to get that lag-free responsiveness.

Ethernet Powers Wi-Fi Networks

An interesting relationship exists between wired Ethernet and wireless Wi-Fi – almost all Wi-Fi access points connect back into a router via Ethernet ports to reach the internet. So while Ethernet cables may disappear from view within homes, Ethernet technology touches nearly every Wi-Fi data flow at some point behind the scenes. Wi-Fi access points often hang Ethernet ports off the back specifically to wire devices needing faster, more reliable connectivity.

Wi-Fi Relys on Radically Different Technology

Unlike Ethernet adapters which use copper wires to send signals as electrical impulses, Wi-Fi transmit data by encoding and modulating it onto radio waves through the air. While the networking protocols relaying packets between computers appear similar to software running on those devices, the transport mechanisms differ enormously between the two technologies underneath.

Wi-Fi connections must contend with obstacles, interference, and signal degradation in ways wired connections largely avoid. Newer Wi-Fi versions cram ever more data into each radio wave using sophisticated encoding techniques but inherent physical limits on wireless transmissions keep setting speed ceilings. As Wi-Fi pushes into bleeding edge millimeter wave bands, we lose range and penetration that Ethernet maintains.

The Next Frontier

As home bandwidth demands accelerate with 4K video streaming, video conferencing, VR gaming, and more taxing our home networks simultaneously across multiple devices, new standards like Wi-Fi 6E and upcoming Wi-Fi 7 aim to catch up with Ethernet specs for the first time. Powerful Wi-Fi routers promising over 10 Gbps speeds could meet specialized needs for wireless connectivity at scale within homes and offices.

However, for the foreseeable future wired Ethernet retains advantages in robustness and latency while simplifying installs by avoiding complex wireless tuning required. WithCat 8 Ethernet cables extending distances and speeds dramatically, the next generation of lightning fast gaming PCs and peripherals continue building connections upon Ethernet foundations rather than wireless innovations alone. The technology has demonstrated incredible longevity already making it a safe bet for reliability for decades more.

Fun Facts About Ethernet‘s Origins

Beyond the technical aspects, Ethernet has some amusing origins:

  • Robert Metcalfe was inspired to explore Ethernet in part thanks to ALOHAnet, a wireless network created at the University of Hawaii.
  • He named it Ethernet as a play on words based on the luminiferous ether concept from physics that had already been disproven by the time Ethernet was created!
  • The earliest spec Ethernet cables had a maximum length of 500 meters – roughly 1600 feet!
  • Metcalfe was convinced the concept would become so ubiquitous that in the 1980s he predicted that over 400 million Ethernet connections would be in use by the 1990s. Skeptics doubted him at the technologies infancy but his predictions came true.

"Vampire Tap" Connectors

Early methods of splicing new terminal connections into existing thick Ethernet cabling involved a strange connector nicknamed "vampire tap" which pierced directly through the coaxial cable‘s outer shielding to tap the signal. Network engineers needed to take care not to use too many of these primitive passive splitters lest they "drain the blood" out of the line from excessive splitting.

Thankfully as Ethernet matured more robust hubs and switches rendered those fang-like vampire taps obsolete. But the unusual technique reflected the early experimental nature of office networking. Few envisioned entire corporate LANs and internet connectivity being built upon Ethernet, seeing it more as a hobbyist tool for university techs. How wrong they turned out to be!

Metcalfe‘s Legendary Prediction

Metcalfe‘s strong conviction in Ethernet‘s potential to transform computer networking led him to make a now legendary prediction in the ‘80s of exactly how many Ethernet connections would be installed globally by the ‘90s. Skeptics abounded but if he was wrong, Metcalfe offered to run a full-page ad in major magazines at his own expense eating his own words instead! Thankfully his projections proved remarkably accurate and no meal of magazine pages ended up necessary.

Amusingly, many of Ethernet‘s early critics dismissed the technology as a mere "nerd bus" for linking computers compared to alternative networking standards around like IBM‘s Token Ring protocol which they argued was the inevitable enterprise winner. Imagine if they had prevailed and office workers everywhere had to request permission tokens to transmit data across their LAN! Ethernet‘s reliable performance despite early derision proved many industry pundits very wrong.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about Ethernet:

When was Ethernet invented?

Ethernet was invented in 1973 by Robert Metcalfe and colleagues at Xerox PARC.

What exactly is Ethernet technology?

Ethernet is a wired networking standard that enables devices like computer, printers, and smartphones to communicate with each other in a local area network.

Who invented Ethernet?

The primary inventor and pioneer of Ethernet is Robert Metcalfe. Colleagues David Boggs, Butler Lampson, and Chuck Thacker assisted his work at Xerox PARC.

How does Ethernet work?

Ethernet networks use cables and network adapters to create a wired connection between devices like computers and an Ethernet switch/router, which directs data on the local network.

Is Ethernet better than Wi-Fi?

Ethernet is generally faster, more reliable, and has lower latency than Wi-Fi. But Wi-Fi allows for wireless mobility around your connected space.

I hope this greatly expanded overview has helped explain why Ethernet technology has become so ubiquitous for networking computers, smartphones, gaming devices and even appliances together both locally and globally! Let me know if you have any other Ethernet questions.