Ethernet inventor takes professorship, brings corporate smarts to technology

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A principle inventor of Ethernet joined the Cockrell School of Engineering this month as its only professor of innovation.

Robert Metcalfe brings years of private sector and large-scale commercialization experience to the University. He said he hopes his future research here will connect other work at the engineering school to the entrepreneurial system of start-ups and investors in Austin.

While working for the Xerox corporation and working on his doctoral dissertation at Harvard in 1973, Metcalfe developed Ethernet along with other researchers, although he is credited as its principal inventor.

Metcalfe then left Xerox and founded 3Com, a network technology company. He said the company standardized and introduced the Ethernet commercially and merged into a part of Hewlett-Packard Co. last year for more than $7 billion.

Ethernet provides a basic layer of the Internet — the connection between computers, which are often in the same building, on Local Area Networks. When developing the Internet, computer scientists organized it in layers, Metcalfe said during his first public lecture at UT on Thursday. Physical structures, such as a personal computer, make up the first
layer and applications, including websites such as Facebook and YouTube, make up the top layer.

“There are wired and wireless ethernets,” Metcalfe said. “It is the pipeline of the Internet.”

Metcalfe’s presentation, which he said was his first PowerPoint presentation even though he was part of the company that developed and sold PowerPoint to Microsoft for $14 million, addressed one of his newer interests — energy. Metcalfe applied lessons from the development of the Internet to problems facing the development of “clean and safe energy.”

This semester marks the start of Metcalfe’s fifth career, sixth if he counted his 23 years as a student, he said. Since completing his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University which laid the basis for the Ethernet, Metcalfe said he worked as a journalist, entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He said he has given many lectures but has never worked as a teacher.

“I have to learn to be a real professor,” Metcalfe said. “I’ve had an audience before but not students.”

Metcalfe will teach one class next fall. He said he has until February to design the course and right now only knows he will teach about innovation.

Gregory Fenves, dean of the engineering school, said Metcalfe’s arrival will bolster the college’s ability to commercialize the research already going on.

“Bob is bringing research and private sector experience in developing and identifying research problems and solutions that will be successful in the marketplace,” Fenves said.

After attending Metcalfe’s talk, electrical and computer engineering graduate student Debarati Kundu said she is excited about the experience and knowledge Metcalfe brings to the school.

“While I won’t pretend I followed everything he said [in the talk], I was very impressed with the way he said energy can be approached as another network,” Kundu said.