Bob Metcalfe is a 21st century Renaissance person — although he demurs that he has always thought of himself as a “a Middle Ages” person. Bob has been an inventor, electrical engineer, publisher, pundit, venture investor, professor, innovator, and now, geothermal engineer. As Bob notes on the verge of turning a youthful age 77 in just a few weeks, “I am embarking on my 7th career!” Metcalfe is also now the recipient of the prestigious Turing Award for 2022, which will be awarded to him on June 10 in San Francisco. Receiving the Turing is equivalent to being anointed the Rock Star of Tech.
I first met Bob two decades ago at The Nantucket Conference, an industry gathering of business and tech founders, and venture investors, on the “far-away island” of Nantucket, MA. Bob’s role at The Nantucket Conference for nearly a decade was as the resident pundit and wise man, as well as the closing valedictorian. As he describes it, “My job was to sit through every session over the course of two days, and then summarize the takeaways and key learnings. Not everyone liked my conclusions”.
Bob has never been immune to strong public positions and provocative statements. In a famous 1996 incident, Metcalfe incorrectly predicted the collapse of the Internet and agreed to “eat his words” on a public stage. As Reuters reported at the time, “The networking pioneer turned computer industry columnist who predicted the Internet would collapse last year, Thursday kept to his promise by literally eating his words”, noting that Metcalfe proceeded to place the offending column into a blender with liquid, before pouring it into a bowl and “slurping down the bowl’s contents to the crowd’s cheers”. Metcalfe dryly remarked, “I was wrong. I ate the column. I am sorry. I am not worthy”. Ever the graceful showman.
Over the decades, Metcalfe has forged a legendary reputation in the innovation world — from Boston to Silicon Valley to Austin (TX), and back. Now, he is returning to his roots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he received his BS in Electrical Engineering in 1969 and completed his PhD in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science in 1973, in addition to a Harvard Business School MS in Applied Mathematics for good measure. Metcalfe will be returning to his alma mater at MIT as Research Affiliate in Computational Engineering at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, commonly known as CSAIL.
Metcalfe will forever be remembered as the inventor of Ethernet (he goes by the moniker “Ether Dad”), which he introduced in a May 22, 1973, memo while working in the Xerox Research (PARC) computer science laboratory in Silicon Valley. He describes Ethernet as the “plumbing for the Internet”, whereby personal computers were first connected using a Local Area Network (LAN). Metcalfe went on to found 3Com (short for “Computer Communication Capability”), which was an industry pioneer in the networking of computers, where he served as Founder, Chairman, CEO, Investor, and “Cheerleader”. The company was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2009 for $2.7 billion in cash. During this time, Metcalfe also became known for Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users connected to the system, a foundational premise behind the Internet.
After retiring from 3Com, Metcalfe went on to his next careers — as CEO/Publisher of International Data Group’s (IDG) highly respected InfoWorld Magazine, followed by a stint as a Limited and General Partner with Polaris Ventures where he remains an Emeritus Partner — before relocating to Austin, TX in 2011 to serve as Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Cockrell School of Engineering and McCombs School of Management at the University of Texas, where he continues as Emeritus Professor of Electrical and Computational Engineering.
Returning to work at MIT CSAIL brings Metcalfe closer to his summer home in Owls Head, Maine, in the Camden, Maine region. There, Bob can be found navigating the waters of Penobscot Bay in his fleet of small craft. In 1996, Bob launched the Pop Tech conference in Camden in conjunction with former Apple Computer CEO John Scully. The conference, which celebrated its 25th year in 2021, bills itself as a “global network committed to the vanguard of emerging technology, science, and creative expression”. Bob will continue to divide his time between Maine, Austin, and Cambridge (MA).
The Turing Award has long been considered to be the Nobel Prize of Computing and was first awarded in 1966 by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The award was established in honor of Alan Turing, the British mathematician considered to be the founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, and whose tragic life was profiled in the 2014 motion picture, The Imitation Game, which received a Best Picture nomination and Best Actor nomination for the moving performance of Benjamin Cumberbatch at the 87th Academy Awards.
The Turing is given annually to individuals who have made a lasting contribution or major technical importance to the field of computer science. The award is widely considered to be the highest recognition in the field of computer science and is accompanied by a $1 million dollar prize with financial support from Google. Metcalfe admits to being humbled by the honor, commenting “Turing recipients include the greatest pioneers in the advancement of computer science, from Marvin Minsky to Tim Berners-Lee. I am grateful to be considered among these giants”.
Metcalfe looks forward to continuing his efforts to educate the next generation of innovation leaders. He applauds the advancement of what he sees as a collaborative innovation ecosystem, stretching from Silicon Valley in the West to Austin in the Southwest and Boston in the Northeast. He concludes, “I am motivated to learn. I consider learning to be fun!” We congratulate Bob Metcalfe on being the recipient of the 2022 Turing Award and look forward to witnessing what the next 20 years will bring. We are confident it will be an innovative and entertaining journey.