Abramson “Was Too Busy Surfing” to Patent Wireless Networking

I argue that patents enable funding for poor inventors or inventors who aspire to big expensive breakthroughs. If you have independent means (like a professorship in Hawaii) and mainly aspire to surf, you can afford to ignore patents.

(p. B11) Professor Abramson has been called the father of wireless networking. But it was a shared paternity. The project included graduate students and several faculty members, notably Frank Kuo, a former Bell Labs scientist who came to the University of Hawaii in 1966, the same year Professor Abramson arrived.

His deepest expertise was in communication theory, the subject of his Ph.D. thesis at Stanford University. The fundamental design ideas behind ALOHAnet were his. In a 2018 oral history interview for the Computer History Museum, Professor Kuo recalled, “Norm was the theory and I was the implementer, and so we worked together pretty well.”

. . .

That the ALOHAnet technology became so widely used was partly because Professor Abramson and his team had shared it freely and welcomed other scientists to Hawaii.

“We had done no patenting, and ALOHA was published in scientific papers,” putting their work in the public domain, Professor Abramson said in the oral history, adding: “And that was fine with me. I was too busy surfing to worry about that sort of thing.”

. . .

Some of the data-networking techniques developed by Professor Abramson and his Hawaii team proved valuable not only in wireless communications but also in wired networks. One heir to his work was Robert Metcalfe, who in 1973 was a young computer scientist working at Xerox PARC, a Silicon Valley research laboratory that had become a fount of personal computer innovations.

Mr. Metcalfe was working on how to enable personal computers to share data over wired office networks. He had read a 1970 paper, written by Professor Abramson, describing ALOHAnet’s method for transmitting and resending data over a network.

“Norm kindly invited me to spend a month with him at the University of Hawaii to study ALOHAnet,” Mr. Metcalfe recalled in an email.

Mr. Metcalfe and his colleagues at Xerox PARC adopted and tweaked the ALOHAnet technology in creating Ethernet office networking. Later, Mr. Metcalfe founded an Ethernet company, 3Com, which thrived as the personal computer industry grew.

“Norm, thank you,” Mr. Metcalfe concluded in his email. “Aloha!”

For the full obituary, see:

Steve Lohr. “Norman Abramson, a Pioneer Behind Wireless Networking, Is Dead at 88.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 12, 2020): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Dec. 11, 2020, and has the title “Norman Abramson, Pioneer Behind Wireless Networks, Dies at 88.”)

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