The top network inventors of all time

Although boxing legend George Foreman, a judge on the second-year CBS reality show American Inventor, has yet to invent a network device, his Lean Mean Grilling Fat-Reducing Machine has been used by countless techies to quickly cook sandwiches and hamburgers after a long day in the data centre. The show on which Foreman appears also inspired us to take a look back at the network industry’s greatest inventors. And who knows, maybe the winner of American Inventor will someday join our list.

Herman Andrew Affel and Lloyd Espenschied

Coaxial cable — 1929

Affel and Espenschied invented what they called the Concentric Conduction System at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1929. (OK, we could have included Alexander Graham Bell on our list, but didn’t want it to be too predictable). Coaxial makes it possible to carry thousands of phone calls on long-distance circuits. It was first commercially used in 1940 and a year later, AT&T used it to establish a transmission system between Minneapolis and Steven’s Point, Wis., that could carry 480 telephone conversations and one television program. Coaxial gave way in 1983 to fibre-optic cabling. Coaxial cable also helped LANs get off the ground.

Paul Baran and Donald Davies

Digital packet switching — 1950s

Baran, the brains behind digital packet switching, came up with a replacement for circuit-switched networks with his Packetized Ensemble Modem. Baran’s work at RAND resulted in a distributed mesh network that could reconfigure itself around non-working areas. His work was in response to U.S.concerns about its defense system surviving a first strike from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In Baran’s and Davies’ packet switched network, communications were broken into packets that would be rejoined at their destination and nodes were interconnected to many other nodes so that data could be transmitted over alternate paths.

Robert Metcalfe

Ethernet — 1973

Metcalfe invented the Ethernet protocol at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973. The patent was filed as Multipoint Data Communication System with Collision Detection. A quarter billion Ethernet switch ports now ship annually. Metcalfe, who founded 3Com on the heels of his invention, has gone on to fund other companies as a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners.

Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn

TCP/IP — 1974

Cerf and Kahn designed the Internet architecture and the protocols that let computers access and use it. Known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), the suite of protocols became the standard way to interconnect and use the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and today’s modern networks. Cerf is now vice-president and chief Internet evangelist at Google. Kahn is chairman of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, a nonprofit company involved in the development of the National Information Infrastructure.

William Yeager and Andy Bechtolsheim

Multi-protocol router software and hardware — 1980-1981

Yeager, an engineer at Stanford University, was charged with linking the engineering and computer science networks across the campus. He developed the EtherTIP routing code. Yeager claims he permitted Len Bosack, the director of Stanford’s Computer Science Department, to use the source code. Unbeknownst to Yeager, Bosak and Sandy Lerner incorporated Cisco Systems and used the router source code as the basis of the first Cisco IOS.

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