Word origin: Ethernet

G S C gscole at ARK.SHIP.EDU
Thu Jul 15 20:51:53 UTC 1999

Earlier discussions about word origins brought back memories of a column
that appeared in InfoWorld.  The column dealt with the history of the
word Ethernet.  The quoted information below was sent by Bob Metcalfe,
the inventor of the word.  I requested the information, since I couldn't
find the original InfoWorld column.  The message is long, but I was
cautious in editing Dr. Metcalfe's commentary.  Essentially, the
creation/usage of Ethernet was not a once and done deal.  If you wish to
see his complete column-draft, please send me a note.  The edited-out
commentary is a discussion of Ethernet and internet capacities.   Also,
below are two sites with commentary on the word extranet (also, a
probable invention of Bob Metcalfe):

George S. Cole   gscole at ark.ship.edu
Shippensburg University

The following is from Dr. Metcalfe's message (also, contains the word

"The word Ethernet was coined in a memo I wrote on May 22, 1973 at the
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.  Below, FYI, is a draft of my old
InfoWorld column on the subject.

/Bob Metcalfe

InfoWorld / From the Ether / Bob Metcalfe


There are now people buying Ethernet whom I have not met

Katy Gurley, my editor, has been asking me to write a column answering
your questions about the history of Ethernet.  She says I should break
from my relentless coverage of information superhighways and tell you
for example where Ethernet got its name.
    Well, I've moved to Maine and ended my two and a half year stint as
publisher/CEO of InfoWorld, so I've got more time to invest not only in
these columns, but also in books on networking history.  So please, this
would be a very good time to hear what interests you about Ethernet
    Ethernet got its name in a memo I wrote at the Xerox Palo Alto
Research Center on May 22, 1973.  Until then I had been calling our
proposed multi-megabit LAN the Alto Aloha Network.  It was to connect
experimental personal computers called Altos.  And it used randomized
retransmission ideas from the University of Hawaii's Aloha System packet
radio network circa 1970.
    The word ether came from lumeniferous ether -- the omnipresent
passive medium once theorized to carry electromagnetic waves through
space, in particular light from the Sun to the Earth.  Around the time
of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the light-bearing ether was proven
not to exist.  So, looking to name our LAN's omnipresent passive medium,
then a coaxial cable, which would propagate electromagnetic waves,
namely data packets, I chose to recycle ether.  Hence, Ethernet.
    Ethernet has been renamed repeatedly since 1973.  When Xerox began
to productize Ethernet at 20Mbps in 1976, we called it The Xerox Wire.
When Digital, Intel, and Xerox decided in 1979 to make it a LAN standard
at 10Mbps, they went back to Ethernet.
    The IEEE tried calling its Ethernet standard 802.3 CSMA/CD --
carrier sense multiple access with collision detection.  And as the
802.3 standard evolved, it picked up such names as Thick Ethernet (IEEE
10BASE-5), Thin Ethernet (10BASE-2), Twisted Ethernet (10BASE-T), and
now Fast Ethernet (100BASE-T).
    Now that you know how Ethernet got its name, let's use some
fun-filled round numbers to relate Ethernet to Iways.
. . . .
  So, if there is an Information Superhighway, it's Ethernet, even if I
do say so myself.  Therefore, the many of you who have asked are clearly
justified in wanting to know how Ethernet got its name.  What else
interests you about Ethernet history?


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