Although we generally associate technological advancements with the companies that successfully commercialize them, there are often underappreciated bodies toiling away behind the curtain. In many cases over the last 40 years, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (today PARC) has been that hidden player, inventing many of today’s ubiquitous technologies or refining them from abstract concepts.
Launched as a development arm of Xerox Corporation in 1970, PARC has played an instrumental role in the engineering of laser printing and many of the technologies that compose the personal computer — most famously the graphical user interface (GUI) used in the Xerox 8010 Star Information System in 1981, followed by the Apple Lisa. The team included many of the world’s top computer scientists, not least of which were former employees of the Stanford Research Institute.
Despite its vast industry contributions, the group has been criticized for failing to capitalize on its many innovations. While some of our older readers might be familiar with the prolific Palo Alto Research Center, we think its accomplishments have largely escaped the younger tech crowd. We’d like to take a few and give credit where credit’s due.
Note: This feature was originally published on December 2011. We have revised it and bumped it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday initiative.
Ethernet and Internetworking
The networking platform that ships with virtually every modern computer was born at PARC around 1973 with Robert Metcalfe and three of his colleagues credited as inventors. An early experimental version of Ethernet ran at 2.94Mb/s and was outlined in a 1976 paper co-authored by Metcalfe called “Ethernet: Distributed Packet Switching for Local Computer Networks” (PDF). In 1979, Metcalfe convinced Xerox, Intel and Digital Equipment Corporation to promote 10Mb/s Ethernet through the “DIX” standard.
Early Ethernet used coaxial cables, but they were eventually ditched in favor of twisted pair and fiber optic cables. Countless other networking-related advancements unfolded during the creation and improvement of Ethernet, including the PARC Universal Packet (PUP), an internetworking protocol suite that influenced the early work of TCP/IP and served as the cornerstone of Xerox’s later XNS protocols. Moreover, PUP was a core component of PARC’s prophetic “office of the future” concept (check out this early ad).
Ball and Optical Mouse
It’s debatable who developed the first mouse, but it wasn’t PARC. Yeah, yeah that’s supposed to be the theme of this article, but read on. A mouse-like bowling ball contraption was created as a secret military project in 1952, while Stanford’s Douglas Engelbart independently produced a wheel mouse in the early 60s. Only weeks before Engelbart planned to demonstrate his device in 1968, the German company Telefunken revealed a ball mouse — though it barely resembles modern designs.
Bill English, who assisted Engelbart with his original concept, later built the “Alto” ball mouse we’re more familiar with while working for Xerox PARC in 1972. Its rectangular shape, button placement and top-protruding wire set the standard we still follow today. The device was created for PARC’s early “Alto” machine, which was arguably the first modern personal computer with a mouse-driven GUI, but it never hit the retail market. PARC’s Richard Lyon went on to build the first optical mouse in 1981.
GUI and WYSIWYG
Having a point-and-click interface is useless if you can’t, well, point and click. PARC had to pioneer much of the graphical environment we take for granted, all the way down to coining the “desktop” metaphor (conceptually speaking, Engelbart beat PARC here, too). The group’s early GUI featured icons, pop-up menus, check boxes, and overlapping windows controlled with a mouse. That opened the door for some innovative software, including many of the first WYSIWYG applications — a luxury in those days, to say the least.
Among those new applications was Bravo, the first WYSIWYG word processor (laid the foundation for MS Word). PARC also developed the first WYSIWYG integrated circuit editor, the Sil vector graphics editor, the Markup bitmap editor (a paint program), as well as programming languages like Interlisp, InterPress and Smalltalk — the latter of which influenced C++, Objective C, CLOS, Java and more. By the late 70s, PARC invented linguistic technologies for spell-checking and created one of the first networked multiplayer games, Alto Trek.
First Laser Printer
Invented by Gary Starkweather at Xerox’s Webster research center in 1969, the first laser printer prototype was fabricated by modifying a xerographic copier. Although it was technically birthed just ahead of PARC’s founding, Starkweather collaborated with the Palo Alto team over the following couple years to refine his original design. The first commercial unit was introduced in 1975 (the IBM 3800), but it wasn’t until 1981 that the market received its first office-bound laser printer, the $17,000 Xerox Star 8010.
HP’s 71lb LaserJet hit the mainstream market in 1984 and printed at a whopping 300dpi/8ppm. It was quickly followed by competing devices from Brother, IBM, Apple and others, but even the early “consumer” implementations were incredibly expensive by modern standards. The LaserJet sold for $3,500 — equal to roughly $8,500 today. Laser printing grew into a multibillion-dollar business for Xerox, easily funding all of its other projects.
The Personal Computer
Many of the above technologies were present in PARC’s experimental Alto computer, but that system wasn’t meant for prime time and was used mostly internally through the 70s. The Alto was greatly refined and commercialized in 1981 when Xerox shipped its first office workstation, known as the Xerox Star or the Xerox 8010 Information System. Intended to realize Xerox’s “office of the future” vision, it was marketed as part of a complete “personal office system” that included other workstations and file/print servers.
The Star itself sold for $16,000 but Xerox’s full office setup cost more than $50,000. Not only was it expensive, but it was an entirely closed system, which meant all the hardware and software had to be built by Xerox. Only about 25,000 units were sold and many consider the Xerox Star a commercial failure. Others argue that it was simply ahead of its time. A few years later, Apple launched the Macintosh, which borrowed many concepts from PARC and is considered the first commercially successful GUI/mouse-equipped PC.
Thinking Beyond the PC
Not only was Xerox’s Palo Alto group ahead of the curve with personal computers, but it envisioned an era beyond the traditional PC nearly 30 years ago. PARC coined the term “ubiquitous computing” in 1988 to outline a future where technology would recede into the background of our lives and people would use mobile devices to seamlessly access resources and control environments. Sound familiar at all? PARC developed some of the earliest functional examples of the “pads” and “tabs” that flood today’s computing scene.
The PARCTab prototype was built in 1991 and measured 9x11x1 inches, weighed five pounds, had a Motorola processor, 4MB of RAM, a pen interface, a keyboard and an integrated mic. It also had near-field communication tech a.k.a NFC which is widely used today. A similar device, called the PARCTab, was a palm-sized computer that allowed researchers to access the Internet, read their email, check the weather and many other basic handset functions. Further back, PARC’s Alan Kay described the “Dynabook” in 1972.
With so many bright minds exploring seemingly every facet of computing, there’s no way we can list all their achievements. Along with everything above, the group also created or greatly contributed to:
- Amorphous silicon (used across various technologies, including LCD backplanes).
- High-power laser tech that is the backbone of our telecommunications network.
- The computer worm (created while experimenting with distributed computations).
- Non-erasable, magneto-optical storage technologies (commercialized via Optimem).
- A 16-bit coding system that lead to the ISO/IEC 10646 and the Unicode standard.
- LambdaMOO, one of the oldest standing real-time multi-user Web environments.
- The IPv6 and HTTP-NG protocols that govern and define how the Internet works.
Xerox PARC Today
Although PARC may never become a household name, there’s no denying that it’s been a driving force in the computing industry for decades. When it was originally established, the research body was tasked with designing an “office of the future.” By all accounts, it accomplished that mission and more.
The division was spun off in 2002 but remains an independent subsidiary of Xerox. Many former PARC employees have formed their own companies, including Adobe, 3Com (bought by HP in 2010), and Spectra Diode. Also three of its eminent researchers are Turing Award winners, the “Nobel Prize of computing.”
PARC continues to tinker with bleeding edge technology, from artificial intelligence (AI) and human-machine collaboration, to Internet of Things, digital manufacturing and the digital workplace.
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