The Router: A Toast to William Yeager

Many immediately think of Cisco Systems when they think of the inventor of the router. The truth behind the story is a bit different though. William ‘Bill’ Yeager, an American engineer born in San Francisco, created the first multiple-protocol router in 1981. He was serving at Stanford’s Knowledge Systems laboratory at the time, and dubbed the first creation ‘Ships in the Night.’

Yeager describes his time at Stanford and the invention of the first multi-protocol router (from pbs.org)

“Before Sun was formed at Stanford University, efforts were already underway across campus in the medical school to develop the multiple protocol routers that Cisco Systems licensed in 1986 from the Stanford University Office of Technology Licensing. Around Christmas of 1979 Xerox gifted ethernet technology to Stanford, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University. Ethernet-based local area networks were immediately installed in the Stanford medical school, and the department of computer science. This led to the need for what became known as “router technology”. “

Yeager goes on to describe how they used router technology as a connection from the Standford Medical School to the Department of Computer Science. He describes the order from his boss at Stanford that lead to the technology development: ” ‘You’re our networking guy. Go do something to connect the computer science department, medical center and department of electrical engineering.” Soon enough, the code for this routing became the standard at Stanford.

This was just the beginning of the story for the router however. Cisco Systems soon licensed Yeager’s routing technology from Stanford, and went on to successfully commercialize the multi-protocol router. (Cisco, located in the Bay Area, originally was named after the nickname for the nearby city San Fran-‘cisco’. ) Although multi-protocol soon gave way to IP (Internet Protocol), it’s importance in the landscape of the router was forever etched.

Today, routers of various shapes, sizes, complexity and price shape the landscape that we know as the internet. This networking equipment varies from small routers that you find in a home or small office, to extremely large routers, like the used Cisco CRS-1 or Juniper T1600,which provide the framework for ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

Routers are the highways that forward information from one location to another, from a PC to the world wide web to another PC on the other side of the world. The invention has shaped the landscape of the internet, global economy, government defense arena, and human society.

Cheers to William Yeager.

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