Chuck Thacker, Pioneering Computing Designer, Speaks at CMU-SV-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Chuck Thacker, Pioneering Computing Designer, Speaks at CMU-SV

“The Alto was invented forty years ago. Why are we talking about it today?” asked Chuck Thacker at Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley’s (CMU-SV) Talks on Computing Systems (TOCS) series on April 30, 2013. In his talk, “The Xerox Alto Architecture,” Thacker led an audience of software engineering graduate students down memory lane, describing the inner workings of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. The “magic” at the renowned lab produced networking and computing systems inventions that have laid the groundwork for many of today’s systems. Reflecting on the Alto and the laboratory that produced it, Thacker shared his thoughts on the relevance and lessons of a forty-year old technology for the 21st century of aspiring software leaders.

CMU-SV attracts leading technologists to its popular talk series held every Tuesday at 1:30 P.M. The seminars, which are open to the public, bring together students, faculty and community members for an active interchange of ideas. Chuck Thacker, currently at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, is a technologist of Silicon Valley legend. During his time at Xerox PARC, he designed and built the Alto, the first distributed personal computing system, and co-invented the Ethernet, to name a few accomplishments. Thacker’s contributions to computing have garnered such prestigious prizes as the Charles Stark Draper Prize (2004), the IEEE John Von Neumann medal (2007), and most recently, the ACM Alan Turing Award (2010).

In 1970, Xerox PARC was founded with the intent to “build and use real systems to understand their value,” a concept familiar to CMU-SV students whose education is based on a learn-by-doing methodology. Three years later, the ALTO was built and the first laser printer, EARS, quickly emerged the year after. A number of laser printers followed, including the financially successful Xerox 9700. Other computers, such as the Dorado, Dolphin, Wildflower, Dandelion, Dicentra and Dragon were all prototyped during Thacker’s time at Xerox PARC.

Back then, the ALTO cost $15,000, the equivalent of $105,000 today. Consider the below-$1000 price tag of today’s PCs, and it is no wonder that the Alto was not a commercial success. The Alto’s historical significance, however, lies not just in its marker as the very first personal computer but also in its status as a platform for which abundant software was written and hardware was based upon, leading the way for much of the computing technology that we enjoy in the 21st century.

“Without software, a computer is nothing more than a hot rock,” quipped Thacker, as he acknowledged the work of CMU-SV students to make hardware relevant through software. The long list of applications built for the Alto includes Bravo and Gypsy, precursors of Microsoft Word, and the Laurel mail system, which looked very much like today’s email systems. Numerous drawing applications also took advantage of the Alto’s bitmap screen. On the hardware side, companies like Sun Microsystems and Apple Computer were undeniably influenced by and spun out of the Alto.

Though Xerox PARC’s reign in the ‘70s produced groundbreaking innovations that form the bedrock for today’s computing systems, Thacker believes that the “golden age of computing has not ever ended.” Software engineering students today have the “opportunity to do things that are just as exciting as the stuff we did forty years ago,” said Thacker, referencing recent cutting-edge technologies such as the Microsoft Kinect as an example that applications for computers continue to grow. For the CMU-SV students in the audience, many with entrepreneurial ambitions, Thacker’s encouragement drove home a theme of their graduate education: the importance of innovation.

Closing his talk, Thacker attributed much of the success of Xerox PARC and its extraordinary collaborative environment to the leadership of its founder, Bob Taylor, another Silicon Valley icon. Taylor was known for staying small, keeping his lab flat and “deflecting the crap.” By reflecting on the successful practices of Taylor to pick the right people and “build an environment that would allow those people to work together without any outside interference,” Thacker hoped to direct CMU-SV students to translate the “magic” of Xerox PARC into their own burgeoning software careers. ♦

Missed Chuck Thacker's talk? Visit the TOCS page for a schedule of upcoming seminars and recordings of previous talks.