Although few outside of the world of computer research might know who they are, Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, Charles “Chuck” Thacker, and Butler Lampson should probably be household names. These four are this year’s winners of the prestigious Draper Prize, which recognizes contributions in engineering. As part of the first “class” of researchers at Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center in California in the 1970s, these technologists were key to the invention of the PC.
Today, most of us take PCs, networks, e-mail, laser printers, electronic publishing and the Internet for granted. But someone had to invent the technologies that are so ubiquitous now.
Together at PARC, the four designed and built in 1973 the first device that resembled what we now know as the personal computer. It’s pretty much agreed that Taylor was the “impresario” who guided the project, Kay supplied the vision (including laptops and tablet PCs replete with wireless connections), Thacker engineered the computer known later as the Xerox Alto, and Lampson created its operating system.
That isn’t all. Kay came up with many elements we now consider standard on any window-oriented system: icons, overlapping windows, and the concept of clickable objects on a desktop. Thacker’s and Lampson’s names appear — with those of two other PARC alumni, Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs — on the patent for the Ethernet networking standard. Another PARC colleague, Gary Starkweather, invented the laser printer, and still another, Charles Simonyi, created the first graphical word processor.
Their basic goal was to invent what Apple later commercialized in 1984 with the Mac: “A computer for the rest of us.” They also fought longstanding misperceptions that computers were for an elite priesthood of technologists. “The great majority of computing experts, plus the leading computer manufacturers, rejected these ideas as absurd,” Taylor says in a prepared statement about his recognition. Thinking like that left Xerox in the dust when established tech firms — like IBM Corp. — and new, nimbler competitors — like Apple Computer Inc. and Compaq — began producing personal computers that were both affordable and usable for the average person.
After joining Xerox, Taylor assembled PARC’s founding research team, including Kay, Thacker, and Lampson. Taylor retired in 1996. The others continue to envision and innovate. Kay, a Hewlett-Packard Fellow and president of Viewpoints Research Institute, pursues an ongoing interest in childhood education.
Perhaps ironically, Lampson and Thacker both now work at Microsoft, as does laser printer inventor Starkweather.