Bob Metcalfe, going with the flow

By Lew McCreary, CIO |  Networking

ON A FRIGID February morning, Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet technology, stands in his barn on a picturesque Maine hilltop amidst a couple of dozen rare and pregnant Cotswold sheep. He's just finished recounting that among his flock are some sheep that, until recently, were found nowhere else on earth but some Scottish Hebridean island. The gene pool there has remained sequestered for so long that "genetically, seen under a microscope, these sheep don't even identify as sheep." Then he pauses and says, "Well, you've got to admit it, that's pretty Darwinian...."

Metcalfe presides over Kelmscott Farm (its website is www.kelmscott.org) with his wife, Robyn -- a dedicated preservationist of rare and endangered livestock breeds. Recently he's spent much more time on the farm near Camden, Maine, than in his Boston town house. The inventor-turned-technology-pundit wants to spend more time with his family, and he can write his weekly newspaper column anywhere -- so why not here? (Full disclosure: Metcalfe is vice president of technology for International Data Group -- CIO and Darwin magazine's parent company.)

The farm, a nonprofit venture, is open year-round to the public. But on the day of my visit, with a tart wind whipping the snow horizontal, nobody else swings by. The lanolin-rich coats of the sheep are frozen stiff.

The house itself is a Sears and Roebuck prefab, ordered from the venerable catalog (precursor to Amazon.com et al.) in the early years of the recently lapsed century. Connected to a smaller, older barn than the one the sheep inhabit, it rambles comfortably and in a decidedly nonprefab way -- with lateral jogs, narrow, twisting stairs and adjunct alcoves -- as though plotted out by meandering livestock looking for ever-tastier bits of roughage.

Metcalfe, who appears to be somewhat obsessed with the obscure but all-important particulars of various kinds of insurance coverage, relates why barns catch fire so often -- and, thus, why insurance premiums are quite a bit higher for houses that adjoin them: "If hay is harvested wet, the moisture ferments inside the bales and creates a hazard of combustion. But when you harvest it dry, that risk goes away. Hence," he says, "the old saying, Make hay while the sun shines. That's where that comes from."

In this and other eclectic anecdotes and scraps of arcana, Bob Metcalfe gives the impression of someone who eagerly vacuums up new data of almost any kind. It all seems so interesting to him.

PERHAPS EVEN MORE DARWINIAN than the sheep, goats and pigs of Kelmscott Farm is the massive round of technology mutations that Metcalfe helped set in motion. In fact, you could argue that if it weren't for Metcalfe -- and a merry band of equally gifted compatriots -- you probably wouldn't be reading this magazine.

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