History of Ethernet switches

Scientists in the 1800s believed that a substance known as ether allowed light to travel through space. While physicists denounced this with the discovery of photons, the idea lives on through what is known as the Ethernet or the way in which bits of information travel through computer networks.


In the 1970s, Xerox charged a man by the name of Robert Metcalfe with the job of coming up with a way of enabling the computers at the Palo Alto Research Center to share data. He was inspired by an earlier experiment in networking called the Aloha network that began at the University of Hawaii in the late 1960s and developed a radio network for communication among the Hawaiian Islands using a common radio channel. However, all stations used the same network causing the information to collide, get garbled, and need to be resent. As traffic increased, so did the collision rate.

Metcalfe took this information and developed a new system that included a mechanism that detected when a collision occurred. The original network was known as the Alto Aloha Network and had a data transmission rate of 2.94 Mb/s. The name was soon changed to Ethernet using the word ether to describe how the cables carry bits to all stations in a similar manner as the old “luminiferous ether” was thought to disseminate electromagnetic waves through space.

In 1980 the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Intel, and Xerox (DIX) announced the first standard for 10 Mb/s Ethernet and the license for use could be purchased for $1,000. In 1982, Xerox gave up its trademark on the Ethernet name and as a result, the Ethernet standard became the world’s first open, multivendor LAN standard.

At the same time, Metcalf began working for the company that is now 3Com and then went on to accept a position as Professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise at the University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering in 2010.

Ethernet prospered in the 1980s. However, installing coaxial cables in buildings was difficult and connecting computers to the cables was also a challenge. Both a thinner cable, as well as a twisted one were both introduced in this decade. The thinner one made installation easier and the twisted one made troubleshooting easier. It was not long after that the technology truly took off.

The speed of the Ethernet in the 80s was around 10 Mb/s. In 1995, it jumped to 100 Mb/s and the use of fiber optics began. Not three years later, in 1998, the Gigabyte Ethernet was introduced bringing speeds of a billion bits per second to fruition. In 2003 and 2006, the speed increased again.

Both the twisted-pair and fiber optic Ethernet inventions coincided with the development of networking switches.  These switches have Ethernet interfaces or ports while the operation of switch protocols is not part of the Ethernet standard. Therefore, you can build a wide variety of networks with switches including those for manufacturing with the use of industrial Ethernet switches.

Through the use of Ethernet switches the Ethernet, LAN, and the internet continues to evolve to heights Metcalf could have never imagined when he first began his research.