The 2023 Turing Award has been given to longtime Boston-area publisher and venture capitalist Bob Metcalfe in recognition of his contribution to the development of Ethernet.
The Turing Award comes with a $1 million prize and is named after British computer pioneer Alan Turing. The Association for Computing Machinery presents the honor each year to those who have contributed significantly to computer technology and changed the world. Marvin Minsky, a forerunner in artificial intelligence, Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, and Tim Berners-Lee, the man behind the World Wide Web, are just a few of the previous winners.
Metcalfe joined Xerox Corp.’s renowned PARC research lab in Palo Alto, California, in 1972 after receiving a computer science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in mathematics from Harvard University. At PARC, researchers developed the point-and-click graphical user interface, the laser printer, and one of the first personal computers. In order to create a straightforward method for these personal computers to communicate with one another directly over a wired connection, Metcalfe and colleague David Boggs created Ethernet in 1973.
In an interview with the Globe, Metcalfe urged readers to “imagine the mission.” Build a network so that each desk can support a personal computer, Bob. Can you picture each desk having a computer? In 1973, that was innovative.
IBM, the company that dominated the computer industry at the time, had a competing technology that Ethernet had to contend with. However, Metcalfe’s method prevailed and is now the standard for networking.
The fact that it could be used with any brand of computer was “the main factor,” according to Metcalfe. Ethernet of today is very different from Ethernet of the past. Like the heavy coaxial cable used in cable television, the original Ethernet system did so. The modern version uses cables that are lighter, thinner, and much more capable of carrying data. Millions of computers are still linked worldwide by variations of the original Ethernet.
Later, Metcalfe founded the networking firm 3Com. He made the switch to journalism in 1991, working for InfoWorld magazine, a publication of the Framingham-based IDG, for ten years as publisher and columnist. From 2001 to 2010, he was a partner at Polaris Partners in Boston, where he invested in renewable energy projects.
He joined the University of Texas as an entrepreneurship professor in 2011. Metcalfe was appointed a research affiliate in computational engineering at MIT the previous year.