'parc' Episodes

The Mouse


In a world of rapidly changing technologies, few have lasted as long is as unaltered a fashion as the mouse. The party line is that the computer mouse was invente d by Douglas Engelbart in 1964 and that it was a one-button wooden device that had two metal wheels. Those used an analog to digital conversion to input a location to a computer. But there’s a lot more to tell. Englebart had read an article in 1945 called “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush. He was in the Philippines working as a radio and radar tech. He’d return home,. Get his degree in electrical engineering, then go to Berkeley and get first his masters and then a PhD. Still in electrical engineering. At the time there were a lot of military grants in computing floating around and a Navy grant saw him work on a computer called CALDIC, short for the California Digital Computer. By the time he completed his PhD he was ready to start a computer storage company but ended up at the Stanford Research Institute in 1957. He published a paper in 1962 called Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. That paper would guide the next decade of his life and help shape nearly everything in computing that came after. Keeping with the theme of “As We May Think” Englebart was all about supplementing what humans could do. The world of computer science had been interested in selecting things on a computer graphically for some time. And Englebart would have a number of devices that he wanted to test in order to find the best possible device for humans to augment their capabilities using a computer. He knew he wanted a graphical system and wanted to be deliberate about every aspect in a very academic fashion. And a key aspect was how people that used the system would interact with it. The keyboard was already a mainstay but he wanted people pointing at things on a screen. While Englebart would invent the mouse, pointing devices certainly weren’t new. Pilots had been using the joystick for some time, but an electrical joystick had been developed at the US Naval Research Laboratory in 1926, with the concept of unmanned aircraft in mind. The Germans would end up building one in 1944 as well. But it was Alan Kotok who brought the joystick to the computer game in the early 1960s to play spacewar on minicomputers. And Ralph Baer brought it into homes in 1967 for an early video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey. Another input device that had come along was the trackball. Ralph Benjamin of the British Royal Navy’s Scientific Service invented the trackball, or ball tracker for radar plotting on the Comprehensive Display System, or CDS. The computers were analog at the time but they could still use the X-Y coordinates from the trackball, which they patented in 1947. Tom Cranston, Fred Longstaff and Kenyon Taylor had seen the CDS trackball and used that as the primary input for DATAR, a radar-driven battlefield visualization computer. The trackball stayed in radar systems into the 60s, when Orbit Instrument Corporation made the X-Y Ball Tracker and then Telefunken turned it upside down to control the TR 440, making an early mouse type of device. The last of the options Englebart decided against was the light pen. Light guns had shown up in the 1930s when engineers realized that a vacuum tube was light-sensitive. You could shoot a beam of light at a tube and it could react. Robert Everett worked with Jay Forrester to develop the light pen, which would allow people to interact with a CRT using light sensing to cause an interrupt on a computer. This would move to the SAGE computer system from there and eek into the IBM mainframes in the 60s. While the technology used to track the coordinates is not even remotely similar, think of this as conceptually similar to the styluses used with tablets and on Wacom tablets today. Paul Morris Fitts had built a model in 1954, now known as Fitts’s Law, to predict the time that’s required to move things on a screen. He defined the target area as a function of the ratio between the distance to the target and the width of the target. If you listen to enough episodes of this podcast, you’ll hear a few names repeatedly. One of those is Claude Shannon. He brought a lot of the math to computing in the 40s and 50s and helped with the Shannon-Hartley Theorum, which defined information transmission rates over a given medium. So these were the main options at Englebart’s disposal to test when he started ARC. But in looking at them, he had another idea. He’d sketched out the mouse in 1961 while sitting in a conference session about computer graphics. Once he had funding he brought in Bill English to build a prototype I n 1963. The first model used two perpendicular wheels attached to potentiometers that tracked movement. It had one button to select things on a screen. It tracked x,y coordinates as had previous devices. NASA funded a study to really dig in and decide which was the best device. He, Bill English, and an extremely talented team, spent two years researching the question, publishing a report in 1965. They really had the blinders off, too. They looked at the DEC Grafacon, joysticks, light pens and even what amounts to a mouse that was knee operated. Two years of what we’d call UX research or User Research today. Few organizations would dedicate that much time to study something. But the result would be patenting the mouse in 1967, an innovation that would last for over 50 years. I’ve heard Engelbart criticized for taking so long to build the oNline System, or NLS, which he showcased at the Mother of All Demos. But it’s worth thinking of his research as academic in nature. It was government funded. And it changed the world. His paper on Computer-Aided Display Controls was seminal. Vietnam caused a lot of those government funded contracts to dry up. From there, Bill English and a number of others from Stanford Research Institute which ARC was a part of, moved to Xerox PARC. English and Jack Hawley iterated and improved the technology of the mouse, ditching the analog to digital converters and over the next few years we’d see some of the most substantial advancements in computing. By 1981, Xerox had shipped the Alto and the Star. But while Xerox would be profitable with their basic research, they would miss something that a candle-clad hippy wouldn’t. In 1979, Xerox let Steve Jobs make three trips to PARC in exchange for the opportunity to buy 100,000 shares of Apple stock pre-IPO. The mouse by then had evolved to a three button mouse that cost $300. It didn’t roll well and had to be used on pretty specific surfaces. Jobs would call Dean Hovey, a co-founder of IDEO and demand they design one that would work on anything including quote “blue jeans.” Oh, and he wanted it to cost $15. And he wanted it to have just one button, which would be an Apple hallmark for the next 30ish years. Hovey-Kelley would move to optical encoder wheels, freeing the tracking ball to move however it needed to and then use injection molded frames. And thus make the mouse affordable. It’s amazing what can happen when you combine all that user research and academic rigor from Englebarts team and engineering advancements documented at Xerox PARC with world-class industrial design. You see this trend played out over and over with the innovations in computing that are built to last. The mouse would ship with the LISA and then with the 1984 Mac. Logitech had shipped a mouse in 1982 for $300. After leaving Xerox, Jack Howley founded a company to sell a mouse for $400 the same year. Microsoft released a mouse for $200 in 1983. But Apple changed the world when Steve Jobs demanded the mouse ship with all Macs. The IBM PC would ;use a mouse and from there it would become ubiquitous in personal computing. Desktops would ship with a mouse. Laptops would have a funny little button that could be used as a mouse when the actual mouse was unavailable. The mouse would ship with extra buttons that could be mapped to additional workflows or macros. And even servers were then outfitted with switches that allowed using a device that switched the keyboard, video, and mouse between them during the rise of large server farms to run the upcoming dot com revolution. Trays would be put into most racks with a single u, or unit of the rack being used to see what you’re working on; especially after Windows or windowing servers started to ship. As various technologies matured, other innovations came along to input devices. The mouse would go optical in 1980 and ship with early Xerox Star computers but what we think of as an optical mouse wouldn’t really ship until 1999 when Microsoft released the IntelliMouse. Some of that tech came to them via Hewlett-Packard through the HP acquisition of DEC and some of those same Digital Research Institute engineers had been brought in from the original mainstreamer of the mouse, PARC when Bob Taylor started DRI. The LED sensor on the muse stuck around. And thus ended the era of the mouse pad, once a hallmark of many a marketing give-away. Finger tracking devices came along in 1969 but were far too expensive to produce at the time. As capacitive sensitive pads, or trackpads came down in price and the technology matured those began to replace the previous mouse-types of devices. The 1982 Apollo computers were the first to ship with a touchpad but it wasn’t until Synaptics launched the TouchPad in 1992 that they began to become common, showing up in 1995 on Apple laptops and then becoming ubiquitous over the coming years. In fact, the IBM Thinkpad and many others shipped laptops with little red nubs in the keyboard for people that didn’t want to use the TouchPad for awhile as well. Some advancements in the mouse didn’t work out. Apple released the hockey puck shaped mouse in 1998, when they released the iMac. It was USB, which replaced the ADB interface. USB lasted. The shape of the mouse didn’t. Apple would go to the monolithic surface mouse in 2000, go wireless in 2003 and then release the Mighty Mouse in 2005. The Mighty Mouse would have a capacitive touch sensor and since people wanted to hear a click would produce that with a little speaker. This also signified the beginning of bluetooth as a means of connecting a mouse. Laptops began to replace desktops for many, and so the mouse itself isn’t as dominant today. And with mobile and tablet computing, resistive touchscreens rose to replace many uses for the mouse. But even today, when I edit these podcasts, I often switch over to a mouse simply because other means of dragging around timelines simply aren’t as graceful. And using a pen, as Englebart’s research from the 60s indicated, simply gets fatiguing. Whether it’s always obvious, we have an underlying story we’re often trying to tell with each of these episodes. We obviously love unbridled innovation and a relentless drive towards a technologically utopian multiverse. But taking a step back during that process and researching what people want means less work and faster adoption. Doug Englebart was a lot of things but one net-new point we’d like to make is that he was possibly the most innovative in harnessing user research to make sure that his innovations would last for decades to come. Today, we’d love to research every button and heat map and track eyeballs. But remembering, as he did, that our job is to augment human intellect, is best done when we make our advances useful, helps to keep us and the forks that occur in technology from us, from having to backtrack decades of work in order to take the next jump forward. We believe in the reach of your innovations. So next time you’re working on a project. Save yourself time, save your code a little cyclomatic complexity, , and save users frustration from having to relearn a whole new thing. And research what you’re going to do first. Because you never know. Something you engineer might end up being touched by nearly every human on the planet the way the mouse has. Thank you Englebart. And thank you to NASA and Bob Roberts from ARPA for funding such important research. And thank you to Xerox PARC, for carrying the torch. And to Steve Jobs for making the mouse accessible to every day humans. As with many an advance in computing, there are a lot of people that deserve a little bit of the credit. And thank you listeners, for joining us for another episode of the history of computing podcast. We’re so lucky to have you. Now stop consuming content and go change the world.

Smalltalk and Object-Oriented Programming


Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to cover the first real object-oriented programming language, Smalltalk. Many people outside of the IT industry would probably know the terms Java, Ruby, or Swift. But I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone outside of IT that has heard of Smalltalk in a long time. And yet… Smalltalk influenced most languages in use today and even a lot of the base technologies people would readily identify with. As with PASCAL from Episode 3 of the podcast, Smalltalk was designed and created in part for educational use, but more so for constructionist learning for kids. Smalltalk was first designed at the Learning Research Group (LRG) of Xerox PARC by Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, Adele Goldberg, Ted Kaehler, Scott Wallace, and others during the 1970s. Alan Kay had coined the term object-oriented programming was coined by Alan Kay in the late 60s. Kay took the lead on a project which developed an early mobile device called the Dynabook at Xerox PARC, as well as the Smalltalk object-oriented programming language. The first release was called Smalltalk-72 and was really the first real implementation of this weird new programming philosophy Kay had called object-oriented programming. Although… Smalltalk was inspired by Simula 67, from Norwegian developers Kirsten Nygaard and Ole-johan Dahl. Even before that Stewart Nelson and others from MIT had been using a somewhat object oriented model when working on Lisp and other programs. Kay had heard of Simula and how it handled passing messages and wrote the initial Smalltalk in a few mornings. He’d go on work with Dan Ingalls to help with implementation and Adele Goldberg to write documentation. This was Smalltalk 71. Object oriented program is a programming language model where programs are organized around data, also called objects. This is a contrast to programs being structured around functions and logic. Those objects could be data fields, attributes, behaviors, etc. For example, a product you’re selling can have a sku, a price, dimensions, quantities, etc. This means you figure out what objects need to be manipulated and how those objects interact with one another. Objects are generalized as a class of objects. These classes define the kind of data and the logic used when manipulating data. Within those classes, there are methods, which define the logic and interfaces for object communication, known as messages. As programs grow and people collaborate on them together, an object-oriented approach allows projects to more easily be divided up into various team members to work on different parts. Parts of the code are more reusable. The way programs are played out is more efficient. And in turn, the code is more scalable. Object-oriented programming is based on a few basic principals. These days those are interpreted as encapsulation, abstraction, inheritance, and polymorphism. Although to Kay encapsulation and messaging are the most important aspects and all the classing and subclassing isn’t nearly as necessary. Most modern languages that matter are based on these same philosophies, such as java, javascript, Python, C++, .Net, Ruby. Go, Swift, etc. Although Go is arguably not really object-oriented because there’s no type hierarchy and some other differences, but when I look at the code it looks object-oriented! So there was this new programming paradigm emerging and Alan Kay really let it shine in Smalltalk. At the time, Xerox PARC was in the midst of revolutionizing technology. The MIT hacker ethic had seeped out to the west coast with Marvin Minsky’s AI lab SAIL at Stanford and got all mixed into the fabric of chip makers in the area, such as Fairchild. That Stanford connection is important. The Augmentation Research Center is where Engelbart introduced the NLS computer and invented the Mouse there. And that work resulted in advances like hypertext links. In the 60s. Many of those Stanford Research Institute people left for Xerox PARC. Ivan Sutherland’s work on Sketchpad was known to the group, as was the mouse from NLS, and because the computing community that was into research was still somewhat small, most were also aware of the graphic input language, or GRAIL, that had come out of Rand. Sketchpad's had handled each drawing elements as an object, making it a predecessor to object-oriented programming. GRAIL ran on the Rand Tablet and could recognize letters, boxes, and lines as objects. Smalltalk was meant to show a dynamic book. Kinda’ like the epub format that iBooks uses today. The use of similar objects to those used in Sketchpad and GRAIL just made sense. One evolution led to another and another, from Lisp and the batch methods that came before it through to modern models. But the Smalltalk stop on that model railroad was important. Kay and the team gave us some critical ideas. Things like overlapping windows. These were made possibly by the inheritance model of executions, a standard class library, and a code browser and editor. This was one of the first development environments that looked like a modern version of something we might use today, like an IntelliJ or an Eclipse for Java developers. Smalltalk was the first implementation of the Model View Controller in 1979, a pattern that is now standard for designing graphical software interfaces. MVC divides program logic into the Model, the View, and the Controller in order to separate internal how data is represented from how it is presented as decouples the model from the view and the controller allow for much better reuse of libraries of code as well as much more collaborative development. Another important thing happened at Xerox in 1979, as they were preparing to give Smalltalk to the masses. There are a number of different interpretations to stories about Steve Jobs and Xerox PARC. But in 1979, Jobs was looking at how Apple would evolve. Andy Hertzfeld and the original Mac team were mostly there at Apple already but Jobs wanted fresh ideas and traded a million bucks in Apple stock options to Xerox for a tour of PARC. The Lisa team came with him and got to see the Alto. The Alto prototype was part of the inspiration for a GUI-based Lisa and Mac, which of course inspired Windows and many advances since. Smalltalk was finally released to other vendors and institutions in 1980, including DEC, HP, Apple, and Berkely. From there a lot of variants have shown up. Instantiations partnered with IBM and in 1984 had the first commercial version at Tektronix. A few companies tried to take SmallTalk to the masses but by the late 80s SQL connectivity was starting to add SQL support. The Smalltalk companies often had names with object or visual in the name. This is a great leading indicator of what Smalltalk is all about. It’s visual and it’s object oriented. Those companies slowly merged into one another and went out of business through the 90s. Instantiations was acquired by Digitalk. ParcPlace owed it’s name to where the language was created. The biggest survivor was ObjectShare, who was traded on NASDAQ, peaking at $24 a share until 1999. In a LA Times article: “ObjectShare Inc. said its stock has been delisted from the Nasdaq national market for failing to meet listing requirements. In a press release Thursday, the company said it is appealing the decision.” And while the language is still maintained by companies like Instantiations, in the heyday, there was even a version from IBM called IBM VisualAge Smalltalk. And of course there were combo-language abominations, like a smalltalk java add on. Just trying to breathe some life in. This was the era where Filemaker, Foxpro, and Microsoft Access were giving developers the ability to quickly build graphical tools for managing data that were the next generation past what Smalltalk provided. And on the larger side products like JDS, Oracle, Peoplesoft, really jumped to prominence. And on the education side, the industry segmented into learning management systems and various application vendors. Until iOS and Google when apps for those platforms became all the rage. Smalltalk does live on in other forms though. As with many dying technologies, an open source version of Smalltalk came along in 1996. Squeak was written by Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, Ted Kaehler, Scott Wallace, John Maloney, Andreas Raab, Mike Rueger and continues today. I’ve tinkerated with Squeak here and there and I have to say that my favorite part is just getting to see how people who actually truly care about teaching languages to kids. And how some have been doing that for 40 years. A great quote from Alan Kay, discussing a parallel between Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and the advances they made to build the Dynabook: If somebody just sat down and implemented what Bush had wanted in 1945, and didn't try and add any extra features, we would like it today. I think the same thing is true about what we wanted for the Dynabook. There’s a direct path with some of the developers of Smalltalk to deploying MacBooks and Chromebooks in classrooms. And the influences these more mass marketed devices have will be felt for generations to come. Even as we devolve to new models from object-oriented programming, and new languages. The research that went into these early advances and the continued adoption and research have created a new world of teaching. At first we just wanted to teach logic and fundamental building blocks. Now kids are writing code. This might be writing java programs in robotics classes, html in Google Classrooms, or beginning iOS apps in Swift Playgrounds. So until the next episode, think about this: Vannevar Bush pushed for computers to help us think, and we have all of the worlds data at our fingertips. With all of the people coming out of school that know how to write code today, with the accelerometers, with the robotics skills, what is the next stage of synthesizing all human knowledge and truly making computers help with As we may think. So thank you so very much for tuning into another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you. Have a great day!

The Mother Of All Demos


Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to cover a special moment in time. Picture this if you will. It’s 1968. A collection of some 1,000 of the finest minds in computing is sitting in the audience of the San Francisco Civic Center. They’re at a joint conference of the Association for Computing Machinery and the IEEE or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Fall Join Computer Conference in San Francisco. They’re waiting to see the a session called A research center for augmenting human intellect. Many had read Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” Atlantic article in 1946 that signified the turning point that inspired so many achievements over the previous 20 years. Many had witnessed the evolution from the mainframe to the transistorized computer to timesharing systems. The presenter for this session would be Douglas Carl Engelbart. ARPA had strongly recommended he come to finally make a public appearance. Director Bob Taylor in fact was somewhat adamant about it. The talk was six years in the making and ARPA and NASA were ready to see what they had been investing in. ARPA had funded his Augmentation Research Center Lab in SRI, or the Stanford Research Institute. The grad instigator J.C.R. Licklider had started the funding when ARPA was still called DARPA in 1963 based on a paper Engelbart published in 1962. But it had really been going since Engelbart got married in 1950 and realized computers could be used to improve human capabilities, to harness the collective intellect, to facilitate truly interactive computing and to ultimately make the world a better place. Englebart was 25. He’d been from Oregon where he got his Bachelors in 48 after serving in World War II as a radar tech. He then come to Berkely in 53 for is Masters, sating through 1955 to get his PhD. He ended up at Stanford’s SRI. There, he hired people like Don Andrews, Bill Paxton, Bill English, and Jeff Rulifson. And today Engelbart was ready to show the world what his team had been working on. The computer was called the oNLine System, or NLS. Bill English would direct things onsite. Because check this out, not all presenters were onsite on that day in 1968. Instead, some were at ARC in Menlo Park, 30 miles away. To be able to communicate onsite they used two 1200 baud modems connecting over a leased line to their office. But they would also use two microwave links. And that was for something crazy: video. The lights went dark. The OnLine Computer was projected onto a 22 foot high screen using an Eidophor video projector. Bill English would flip the screen up as the lights dimmed. The audience was expecting a tall, thin man to come out to present. Instead, they saw Doug Englebart on the screen in front of them. The one behind the camera, filming Engelbart, was Stewart Russel Brand, the infamous editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. It seems Englebart was involved in more than just computers. But people destined to change the world have always travelled in the same circles I supposed. Englebart’s face came up on the screen, streaming in from all those miles away. And the screen they would switch back and forth to. That was the Online System, or NLS for short. The camera would come in from above Englebart’s back and the video would be transposed with the text being entered on the screen. This was already crazy. But when you could see where he was typing, there was something… well, extra. He was using a pointing device in his right hand. This was the first demo of a computer mouse Which he had applied for a patent for in 1967. He called it that because it had a tail which was the cabe that connected the wooden contraption to the computer. Light pens had been used up to this point, but it was the first demonstration of a mouse and the team had actually considered mounting it under the desk and using a knee to move the pointer.But they decided that would just be too big a gap for normal people to imagine and that the mouse would be simpler. Engelbart also used a device we might think of more like a macro pad today. It was modeled after piano keys. We’d later move this type of functionality onto the keyboard using various keystrokes, F keys, and a keyboard and in the case of Apple, command keys. He then opened a document on his screen. Now, people didn’t do a lot of document editing in 1968. Really, computers were pretty much used for math at that point. At least, until that day. That document he opened. He used hyperlinks to access content. That was the first real demo of clickable hypertext. He also copied text in the document. And one of the most amazing aspects of the presentation was that you kinda’ felt like he was only giving you a small peak into what he had. You see, before the demo, they thought he was crazy. Many were probably only there to see a colossal failure of a demo. But instead they saw pure magic. Inspiration. Innovation. They saw text highlighted. They saw windows on screens that could be resized. They saw the power of computer networking. Video conferencing. A stoic Engelbart was clearly pleased with his creation. Bill Paxton and Jeff Rulifson were on the other side, helping with some of the text work. His style worked well with the audience, and of course, it’s easy to win over an audience when they have just been wowed by your tech. But more than that, his inspiration was so inspiring that you could feel it just watching the videos. All these decades later. can watching those videos. Engelbart and the team would receive a standing ovation. And to show it wasn’t smoke and mirrors, ARC let people actually touch the systems and Engelbart took questions. Many people involved would later look back as though it was an unfinished work. And it was. Andy van Dam would later say Everybody was blown away and thought it was absolutely fantastic and nothing else happened. There was almost no further impact. People thought it was too far out and they were still working on their physical teletypes, hadn't even migrated to glass teletypes yet. But that’s not really fair or telling the whole story. In 1969 we got the Mansfield Amendment - which slashed the military funding pure scientific research. After that, the budget was cut and the team began to disperse, as was happening with a lot of the government-backed research centers. Xerox was lucky enough to hire Bob Taylor, and many others immigrated to Xerox PARC, or Palo Alto Research Center, was able to take the concept and actually ship a device in 1973, although not as mass marketable yet as later devices would be. Xerox would ship the Alto in 1973. The Alto would be the machine that inspired the Mac and therefore Windows - so his ideas live on today. His own team got spun out of Stanford and sold, becoming Tymshare and then McDonnel Douglas. He continued to have more ideas but his concepts were rarely implemented at McDonnel Douglas so he finally left in 1986, starting the Bootstrapp Alliance, which he founded with his daughter. But he succeeded. He wanted to improve the plight of man and he did. Hypertext and movable screens directly influenced a young Alan Kay who was in the audience and was inspired to write Smalltalk. The Alto at Xerox also inspired Andy van Dam, who built the FRESS hypertext system based on many of the concepts from the talk as well. It also did multiple windows, version control on documents, intradocument hypertext linking, and more. But, it was hard to use. Users needed to know complex commands just to get into the GUI screens. He was also still really into minicomputers and timesharing, and kinda’ missed that the microcomputer revolution was about to hit hard. The hardware hacker movement that was going on all over the country, but most concentrated in the Bay Area, was about to start the long process of putting a computer, and now mobile device, in every home in the world. WIth smaller and smaller and faster chips, the era of the microcomputer would transition into the era of the client and server. And that was the research we were transitioning to as we moved into the 80s. Charles Irby was a presentter as well, being a designer of NLS. He would go on to lead the user interface design work on the Xerox star before founding a company then moving on to VP of development for General Magic, a senior leader at SGI and then the leader of the engineering team that developed the Nintendo 64. Bob Sproull was in the audience watching all this and would go on to help design the Xerox Alto, the first laser printer, and write the Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics before becoming a professor at Conegie Mellon and then ending up helping create Sun Microsystems Laboratories, becoming the director and helping design asuynchronous processors. Butler Lampson was also there, a found of Xerox PARC, where the Alto was built and co-creator of Ethernet. Bill Paxton (not the actor) would join him at PARC and later go on to be an early founder of Adobe. In 2000, Engelbart would receive the National Medal of Technology for his work. He also He got the Turing Award in 1997, the Locelace Medal in 2001. He would never lose his belief in the collective intelligence. He wrote Boosting Our Collective IQ in 1995 and it has Englebart passed away in 2013. He will forever be known as the inventor of the mouse. But he gave us more. He wanted to augment the capabilities of humans, allowing us to do more, rather than replace us with machines. This was in contrast to SAIL and the MIT AI Lab where they were just doing research for the sake of research. The video of his talk is on YouTube, so click on the links in the show notes if you’d like to access it and learn more about such a great innovator. He may not have brought a mass produced system to market, but as with Vanevar Bush’s article 20 years before, the research done is a turning point in history; a considerable milestone on the path to the gleaming world we now live in today. The NLS teaches us that while you might not achieve commercial success with years of research, if you are truly innovative, you might just change the world. Sometimes the two simply aren’t mutually exclusive. And when you’re working on a government grant, they really don’t have to be. So until next time, dare to be bold. Dare to change the world, and thank you for tuning in to yet another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re so lucky to have you. Have a great day! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJDv-zdhzMY

Bob Tayler: ARPA to PARC to DEC


Robert Taylor was one of the true pioneers in computer science. In many ways, he is the string (or glue) that connected the US governments era of supporting computer science through ARPA to innovations that came out of Xerox PARC and then to the work done at Digital Equipment Corporation’s Systems Research Center. Those are three critical aspects of the history of computing and while Taylor didn’t write any of the innovative code or develop any of the tools that came out of those three research environments, he saw people and projects worth funding and made sure the brilliant scientists got what they needed to get things done.

The 31 years in computing that his stops represented were some of the most formative years for the young computing industry and his ability to inspire the advances that began with Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article called “As We May Think” then ended with the explosion of the Internet across personal computers. 

Bob Taylor inherited a world where computing was waking up to large crusty but finally fully digitized mainframes stuck to its eyes in the morning and went to bed the year Corel bought WordPerfect because PCs needed applications, the year the Pentium 200 MHz was released, the year Palm Pilot and eBay were founded, the year AOL started to show articles from the New York Times, the year IBM opened a we web shopping mall and the year the Internet reached 36 million people. Excite and Yahoo went public. Sometimes big, sometimes small, all of these can be traced back to Bob Taylor - kinda’ how we can trace all actors to Kevin Bacon. But more like if Kevin Bacon found talent and helped them get started, by paying them during the early years of their careers… 

How did Taylor end up as the glue for the young and budding computing research industry? Going from tween to teenager during World War II, he went to Southern Methodist University in 1948, when he was 16. He jumped into the US Naval Reserves during the Korean War and then got his masters in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin using the GI Bill. Many of those pioneers in computing in the 60s went to school on the GI Bill. It was a big deal across every aspect of American life at the time - paving the way to home ownership, college educations, and new careers in the trades. From there, he bounced around, taking classes in whatever interested him, before taking a job at Martin Marietta, helping design the MGM-31 Pershing and ended up at NASA where he discovered the emerging computer industry. 

Taylor was working on projects for the Apollo program when he met JCR Licklider, known as the Johnny Appleseed of computing. Lick, as his friends called him, had written an article called Man-Computer Symbiosis in 1960 and had laid out a plan for computing that influenced many. One such person, was Taylor. And so it was in 1962 he began and in 1965 that he succeeded in recruiting Taylor away from NASA to take his place running ARPAs Information Processing Techniques Office, or IPTO. 

Taylor had funded Douglas Engelbart’s research on computer interactivity at Stanford Research Institute while at NASA. He continued to do so when he got to ARPA and that project resulted in the invention of the computer mouse and the Mother of All Demos, one of the most inspirational moments and a turning point in the history of computing. 

They also funded a project to develop an operating system called Multics. This would be a two million dollar project run by General Electric, MIT, and Bell Labs. Run through Project MAC at MIT there were just too many cooks in the kitchen. Later, some of those Bell Labs cats would just do their own thing. Ken Thompson had worked on Multics and took the best and worst into account when he wrote the first lines of Unix and the B programming language, then one of the most important languages of all time, C. 

Interactive graphical computing and operating systems were great but IPTO, and so Bob Taylor and team, would fund straight out of the pentagon, the ability for one computer to process information on another computer. Which is to say they wanted to network computers. It took a few years, but eventually they brought in Larry Roberts, and by late 1968 they’d awarded an RFQ to build a network to a company called Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) who would build Interface Message Processors, or IMPs. The IMPS would connect a number of sites and route traffic and the first one went online at UCLA in 1969 with additional sites coming on frequently over the next few years. That system would become ARPANET, the commonly accepted precursor to the Internet. 

There was another networking project going on at the time that was also getting funding from ARPA as well as the Air Force, PLATO out of the University of Illinois. PLATO was meant for teaching and had begun in 1960, but by then they were on version IV, running on a CDC Cyber and the time sharing system hosted a number of courses, as they referred to programs. These included actual courseware, games, convent with audio and video, message boards, instant messaging, custom touch screen plasma displays, and the ability to dial into the system over lines, making the system another early network. 

Then things get weird. Taylor is sent to Vietnam as a civilian, although his rank equivalent would be a brigadier general. He helped develop the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. Battlefield operations and reporting were entering the computing era. Only problem is, while Taylor was a war veteran and had been deep in the defense research industry for his entire career, Vietnam was an incredibly unpopular war and seeing it first hand and getting pulled into the theater of war, had him ready to leave. This combined with interpersonal problems with Larry Roberts who was running the ARPA project by then over Taylor being his boss even without a PhD or direct research experience. And so Taylor joined a project ARPA had funded at the University of Utah and left ARPA. 

There, he worked with Ivan Sutherland, who wrote Sketchpad and is known as the Father of Computer Graphics, until he got another offer. This time, from Xerox to go to their new Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. One rising star in the computer research world was pretty against the idea of a centralized mainframe driven time sharing system. This was Alan Kay. In many ways, Kay was like Lick. And unlike the time sharing projects of the day, the Licklider and Kay inspiration was for dedicated cycles on processors. This meant personal computers. 

The Mansfield Amendment in 1973 banned general research by defense agencies. This meant that ARPA funding started to dry up and the scientists working on those projects needed a new place to fund their playtime. Taylor was able to pick the best of the scientists he’d helped fund at ARPA. He helped bring in people from Stanford Research Institute, where they had been working on the oNLineSystem, or NLS. 

This new Computer Science Laboratory landed people like Charles Thacker, David Boggs, Butler Lampson, and Bob Sproul and would develop the Xerox Alto, the inspiration for the Macintosh. The Alto though contributed the very ideas of overlapping windows, icons, menus, cut and paste, word processing. In fact, Charles Simonyi from PARC would work on Bravo before moving to Microsoft to spearhead Microsoft Word.

Bob Metcalfe on that team was instrumental in developing Ethernet so workstations could communicate with ARPANET all over the growing campus-connected environments. Metcalfe would leave to form 3COM. 

SuperPaint would be developed there and Alvy Ray Smith would go on to co-found Pixar, continuing the work begun by Richard Shoup. 

They developed the Laser Printer, some of the ideas that ended up in TCP/IP, and the their research into page layout languages would end up with Chuck Geschke, John Warnock and others founding Adobe. 

Kay would bring us the philosophy behind the DynaBook which decades later would effectively become the iPad. He would also develop Smalltalk with Dan Ingalls and Adele Goldberg, ushering in the era of object oriented programming. 

They would do pioneering work on VLSI semiconductors, ubiquitous computing, and anything else to prepare the world to mass produce the technologies that ARPA had been spearheading for all those years. Xerox famously did not mass produce those technologies. And nor could they have cornered the market on all of them. The coming waves were far too big for one company alone. 

And so it was that PARC, unable to bring the future to the masses fast enough to impact earnings per share, got a new director in 1983 and William Spencer was yet another of three bosses that Taylor clashed with. Some resented that he didn’t have a PhD in a world where everyone else did. Others resented the close relationship he maintained with the teams. Either way, Taylor left PARC in 1983 and many of the scientists left with him. 

It’s both a curse and a blessing to learn more and more about our heroes. Taylor was one of the finest minds in the history of computing. His tenure at PARC certainly saw the a lot of innovation and one of the most innovative teams to have ever been assembled. But as many of us that have been put into a position of leadership, it’s easy to get caught up in the politics. I am ashamed every time I look back and see examples of building political capital at the expense of a project or letting an interpersonal problem get in the way of the greater good for a team. But also, we’re all human and the people that I’ve interviewed seem to match the accounts I’ve read in other books. 

And so Taylor’s final stop was Digital Equipment Corporation where he was hired to form their Systems Research Center in Palo Alto. They brought us the AltaVista search engine, the Firefly computer, Modula-3 and a few other advances. Taylor retired in 1996 and DEC was acquired by Compaq in 1998 and when they were acquired by HP the SRC would get merged with other labs at HP. 

From ARPA to Xerox to Digital, Bob Taylor certainly left his mark on computing. He had a knack of seeing the forest through the trees and inspired engineering feats the world is still wrestling with how to bring to fruition. Raw, pure science. He died in 2017. He worked with some of the most brilliant people in the world at ARPA. He inspired passion, and sometimes drama in what Stanford’s Donald Knuth called “the greatest by far team of computer scientists assembled in one organization.” 

In his final email to his friends and former coworkers, he said “You did what they said could not be done, you created things that they could not see or imagine.” The Internet, the Personal Computer, the tech that would go on to become Microsoft Office, object oriented programming, laser printers, tablets, ubiquitous computing devices. So, he isn’t exactly understating what they accomplished in a false sense of humility. I guess you can’t do that often if you’re going to inspire the way he did. 

So feel free to abandon the pretense as well, and go inspire some innovation. Heck, who knows where the next wave will come from. But if we aren’t working on it, it certainly won’t come.

Thank you so much and have a lovely, lovely day. We are so lucky to have you join us on yet another episode. 

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020