An Interview with Bob Metcalfe
Photo of Bob Metcalfe

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and Trevor Getsla, Willow Glen High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer


Trevor Getsla

Robert M. Metcalfe specializes in making connections.

Heralded for developing the most commonly used system for linking computers together via a network, known as ethernet, he also helped market and sell the idea that would become a multibillion dollar industry.

In 1979, he founded 3Com Corp., the computer networking company in Santa Clara. This weekend and through Wednesday, Metcalfe is presiding over a symposium at the San Jose convention Center on the future of computing over the next 50 years.

Born in 1946, Metcalfe is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technlology in 1969 with a degree in electrical engineering and a degree from the Sloan School of management. He recieved a masters degree in appplied mathematics and his Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard University.

Last week 3Com, announced a multibillion-dollar deal to merge with U.S. Robotics Corp. of Skokie, Ill., the nation's leading producer of modems for personal computers.

This weekend and through Wednesday, Metcalfe is presiding over a symposium at the San Jose Convention Center on the future of computing in the next 50 years.

Retiring from 3Com in 1990, Metcalfe now lives in Boston and primarily writes about technology. He spoke with writer Joyce Gemperlein and student Trevor Getsla.

Gemperlein :   Where are you from?
Metcalfe :   I was born in Brooklyn, New York, near the place where the Verrazano Narrows Bridge is, but it wasn't there then. . .in a Norwegian ghetto. It was a long time before I met anybody who didn't have blond hair and blue eyes. My mother spoke Norwegian, but (it was a) mixed marriage. My father was an Irish Catholic. In those days, it was a really hard thing.

" I believe the science and technology thread goes back to a model railroad. A Lionel. Nothing very complicated or sophisticated. We built Lionel trains in the basement. "

Today we laugh about that being a mixed marriage. But in those days, it was really complicated because our grandparents hated each other. It was a problem. And then we moved out to Long Island.

Gemperlein :   What did your father do, and what got you started in technology?
Metcalfe :   My father was a technician in the aerospace industry. Not an engineer. He never graduated from college. He went to high school and then he became a technician. He tested gyroscopic platforms for various military platforms. My mom was a riveter, a 'Rosie Riveter' type during World War II.

I believe the science and technology thread goes back to a model railroad. A Lionel. Nothing very complicated or sophisticated. We built Lionel trains in the basement. My father helped make it, wire it up, toggle switches and so on, switching the trains around.

Then, as an 8th grade science project, I took the pieces that came from the control for the train and I built what my 8th-grade science teacher proudly called a computer. And I got an A.

Gemperlein :   Was it a computer?
Metcalfe :   Well, this is 1959, and it was a box about as big as a toaster and it had 6 switches on it. The top 3, you could choose any number between 1, 2, and 3. And the bottom 3 was the same. You could choose any number between 1 and 3. And then there was a row of lights corresponding to 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. And the sum of the 2 numbers would be reflected in the correct light coming in. It's very hard to explain to today's kids why that was a marvel cause they have calculators, computers, and stuff. But we were all very proud of my computer in the 8th grade.

And that's sort of how I got into science and technology, and particularly, computers. (But) there was one earlier event which was incredible. In 4th grade, I wrote a book report at the last minute about a book that I found in the basement on my father's bookshelf. It was a college electrical engineering text, which I obviously did not read. But I wrote a book report about it anyway. You know, the kind of book report that says, I read this book and it had its high points and it had its low points, but on average it sort of averaged out. And then at the end of the book report, to virtually insure that I would get a good grade, I wrote, I plan to go to MIT and get a degree in electrical engineering. This was in 4th grade. And, of course, I did.

Getsla: Weird.

Gemperlein :   Were you a good student? Were you an A student?
Metcalfe :   I worked very hard, studied all the time. And got lots of A's. I didn't start out that way. We moved ... I went to 2 years of kindergarten. I was in a year of kindergarten in Brooklyn and then another year on Long Island because the age qualifications were different. So I got left back in kindergarten. Then we moved into a development in Bayshore, Long Island. A development is where the houses are all the same -- for miles and miles! And all my friends, Billy Debitsky and Rocko Dematto, had all sorts of ethnic names. We were a melting pot in this development. And I did well in school there.

But when I really started doing well in school when we moved and a rocket took off in about 7th grade carrying one of my father's guidance systems after 11 straight failures. You know, the rockets in those days, they'd go pfffft, they'd fall over. Used to watch these on TV.

Course my father had some role in the platform and he would always say that it wasn't his platform that caused the rocket crash. But finally one of them took off, and he got promoted, and we moved out of the development into the town and the kids there were much more interested in school and in my interest was heightened and I did even better.


" So I may be famous for having the first computer small enough to be stolen. It was a DEC computer, and it was stolen from ME. A year later, they found it in the basement of an MIT fraternity. "

My best friend was Ron Rosenbaum and he became valedictorian and I became salutatorian of our high school class. Ron lives in New York City and he's a famous writer. He writes for Vanity Fair. He writes books and he was the humanities wizard and I was the science and technology wizard. So he won the French prize and the Russian prize and the English prize at graduation. And I won the mathematics prize and the science prize.

And I learned an important lesson at graduation, whch is the amount of money that I got from the science/technology award was much more than the amount of money he got!

Gemperlein :   What was it like back then with technology?
Metcalfe :   Well, my first computer was in my senior year in high school. I went to Columbia University every Saturday morning. They had a thing called the Science Honors Program. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation. And I got to take the train up; it was about an hour by train from where we lived in Long Island into the city. And then we got to take 3 courses every Saturday for a year. And one of them I took was computer programming. So that was my first real computer, and that was an IBM 7894. And we wrote little toy programs I can't even remember what they'd do.

But then when we got to MIT, the second was an IBM 7094 because that's what they used to teach the freshmen computer course; 641 it was called. And then I took 651, and it was a systems programming course. And that was also on the 7094. But the Raytheon job (I got the beginning of sophomore year) was programming a Univac military computer, which was as big as a refrigerator.

Now here is a really cool story: My senior year in college, I talked the Digital Equipment Corporation into lending me a computer for use. I was then teaching high-school students. They had a Saturday program at MIT where obnoxiously brilliant high school students would come in, and we would teach them whatever the course was, whatever I was teaching, introduction to computer science to these obnoxiously brilliant kids. And I got DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation, to lend me a computer to teach them. What I was trying to do was to write programs. And they would sit down at this little computer, with a teletype, and type in these simple programs.

It was in a language called FOCAL, which is similar to BASIC. At the end of this year, after I wrote my paper. I did a research paper on the use of small computers in education. I came to work one day at MIT and the computer had been stolen.

Gemperlein :   Did you know what it was worth?
Metcalfe :   $30,000! So I called up DEC to break the news to them that this $30,000 computer that they'd lent me was gone. And I had pretty much in screwing up my courage for this phone call. Had committed myself to a life of indentured servitude to repay this $30,000. When I called them, I got a really funny reaction because they sent out the marketing person who'd loaned me the computer. He came with two public relations people. And they thought this was the greatest thing that ever happened. Because it turns out that I had in my possession the first computer small enough to be stolen! And they made a big PR deal out of this!

"At the end of the book report, to virtually insure that I would get a good grade, I wrote, ' I plan to go to MIT and get a degree in electrical engineering.' This was in 4th grade. And, of course, I did."

I've said this a hundred times: I've never found anyone that had a computer stolen before this one, in 1968. So I may be famous for having the first computer small enough to be stolen. It was a DEC computer, and it was stolen from ME. A year later, they found it in the basement of an MIT fraternity. With a lot of other electronics. . . they were just jerks.

This was a small computer. It was as big as a microwave oven, and it had a teletype sitting next to it. They didn't steal the teletype. They used wire cutters, cable cutters, to cut the teletype off . . . it was really destructive and stupid.