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Michael Hiltzik: The legacy of Xerox PARC

September 28, 2010 |  4:58 pm

Every great corporate research lab has at least one earthshaking invention to its credit -- think of Bell Labs and the transistor. But one would be hard-pressed to think of a lab that has played more of a role in making the technological world of today than Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, the subject of my Wednesday column.

I'll just list a few of PARC's pioneering scientists and engineers along with their innovations from the 1970s and early 1980s. All this happened at PARC:

Alan Kay, Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker built the first personal computer, the Alto. Kay, Adele Goldberg, Larry Tesler and others developed object-oriented programming and Dan Ingalls implemented a graphical display of the sort later to become a feature of the Macintosh and Windows PCs. Charles Simonyi wrote the word processor Bravo, which became Microsoft Word.

Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs invented Ethernet; Dick Shoup the SuperPaint frame buffer system used in applications like TV weather maps. Gary Starkweather invented the laser printer. Lynn Conway and Carver Mead developed the VLSI circuit technology that made the Pentium microprocessor possible.

I've only scratched the surface; more of the story is in my book Dealers of Lightning. Happy 40th, PARC.

The column begins below.

Institutions, like human beings, often treat their 40th birthdays as occasions for midlife stock-taking. So it’s not surprising that the 40th anniversary celebration at Xerox PARC last week was devoted as much to looking ahead to the future as to looking back at its fabled history.

Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center was founded in 1970, when the company was still flush with cash from the copier business but uneasy that new technologies might emerge to undercut its dominant position.

Over the next dozen years, the young scientists and engineers who came together on a hilltop overlooking what would soon be dubbed Silicon Valley invented the personal computer, Ethernet, the laser printer and Windows-style computer displays, among many other advances.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik

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