Milestones:Xerox Alto

From IEEE Milestones Wiki

Title

The Xerox Alto Establishes Personal Networked Computing, 1972-1983

Citation

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) researchers developed novel hardware and software for the Xerox Alto computer, setting the model for personal computing for decades. The Alto incorporated a high-resolution display, mouse, and PARC-developed Ethernet networking. Alto software developments in programming languages, graphical user interfaces, printing, graphics, word processing, networking, and email were widely and profoundly influential.

Street address(es) and GPS coordinates of the Milestone Plaque Sites

Xerox PARC 3333 Coyote Hill Road, Palo Alto CA, 94304, Xerox PARC 3333 Coyote Hill Road, Palo Alto CA, 94304

Details of the physical location of the plaque

The plaque will be mounted in the Xerox PARC facility lobby near the Alto that is on display.

How the intended plaque site is protected/secured

Security protected lobby, open to public daily 8AM-4:30 PM, 650 812-4000

Historical significance of the work

The concepts included in or pioneered by the Alto hardware and software would dramatically change the personal computing future when they were subsequently incorporated by such companies as Apple (Lisa and Macintosh), Microsoft (Word, Windows), Adobe (Postscript), 3Com (Ethernet), and IBM (Personal Computer). There were many hardware and software innovations that would shape the future of personal computing.

Features that set this work apart from similar achievements

There were both hardware and software features that set this work apart. The display was bit mapped with 606x808 pixels that allowed multiple fonts and type styles such as italics rather than the typical terminal that had an 80 by 24 character only display. The bit-mapped display also allowed the display of graphic images. It also used a three-button mouse and could also have an optional 5-key chorded keyboard. The Alto incorporated user accessible microcode that allowed the use of the same basic hardware for many different applications. Thus, it had many innovative software programs. These included the first “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) document preparation systems, Bravo and Gypsy. Another innovation was the Laurel email tool, and its successor Hardy. It provided the Sil vector graphics editor, used mainly for logic circuits, printed circuit board, and other technical diagrams. It also provided the Markup bitmap editor (an early paint program) and the Draw graphical editor using lines & splines. It provided the first WYSIWYG integrated circuit editor, the first versions of the Smalltalk environment, and Alto Trek, one of the first network-based multi-person video games. It also provided Ethernet connectivity that allowed rapid transfer of information among any of the Alto computers and thus facilitated collaboration among different users. This was a dramatic improvement from a terminal connected to a mainframe trying to transfer data to a different mainframe.

Significant references

"Alto: A Personal Computer” Charles P. Thacker, et al. Xerox, Palo Alto Research Center, 1979.

“Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age”. Michael A. Hiltzik, (1999) HarperCollins ISBN 0-88730-891-0. This book provides a timeline and description of the activities that took place at Xerox PARC during the development of the Alto. It details the efforts of Charles Thacker and the other people involved with the creation of the Alto and the importance of the concepts contained in the Alto hardware and software.

“Alto A Personal Computer Hardware Manual” August 1976, A description of the hardware and the standard microcode.

“This document is a description of the Alto, a small personal computing system originally designed at PARCo By 'personal computer' we mean a non-shared system containing sufficient processing power, storage, and input-output capability to satisfy the computational needs of a single user.”

“The Alto and Ethernet Software” by Butler Lampson 1986 Description of the Alto Ethernet software published in the Association for Computing Machinery journal.

“The personal distributed computing system based on the Alto and the Ethernet was a major effort to make computers help people to think and communicate. The paper describes the complex and diverse collection of software that was built to pursue this goal, ranging from operating systems, programming environments, and communications software to printing and file servers, user interfaces, and applications such as editors, illustrators, and mail systems.”

“The Alto and Ethernet Hardware” by Charles Thacker 1986 Description of the Alto Ethernet hardware published in the Association for Computing Machinery journal.

“Between 1972 and 1980, the first distributed personal computing system was built at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The system was composed of a number of Alto workstations connected by an Ethernet local network. It also included servers that provided centralized facilities. This paper describes the development of the hardware that was the basis of the system.”

“The Xerox Alto Computer”, Thomas A. Wadlow, Page 58, Byte Magazine, September 1981. This article confirms the Alto as the beginning of the personal computer as an important tool for research. “In 1972, Xerox Corporation decided to produce a personal computer for research. The result was the Alto computer, whose name comes from the Xerox Palo Also Research Center where it was developed. The Alto was the result of a joint effort by Ed McCreight, Chuck Thacker, Butler Lampson, Bob Sproull, and Dave Boggs, who were attempting to make a device that was small enough to fit in an office comfortably, but powerful enough to support a reliable, high quality operating system and graphics display. Their goal was to provide each user with a personal computing facility capable of meeting all individual needs and a communications facility that would allow users to share information easily. In 1978 Xerox donated a total of fifty Altos to Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). These machines were quickly assimilated into the research community and rapidly became the standard against which other personal computers were judged.”

“The Alto and Ethernet System Xerox PARC in the 1970’s”, Butler Lampson, Microsoft Research, October 17, 2006

“Troublemakers Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age” Leslie Berlin, 2017 Simon & Shuster pages 101-106, 221-224 ISBN 978-1-4516-5150-8. In this book Leslie Berlin tells the story of the Alto and the men who produced it. One of the items to note is the following excerpt: “The flagship software program on the Alto was a word processing program called Bravo. (Its writer, Charles Simonyi, would later move to Microsoft, where Bravo became the design influence for Microsoft Word.)

Supporting materials

Alto: A Personal Computer. Charles P. Thacker, et al. Xerox, Palo Alto Research Center, 1979. http://bitsavers.org/pdf/xerox/parc/techReports/CSL-79-11_Alto_A_Personal_Computer.pdf

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age. Michael A. Hiltzik, (1999) HarperCollins ISBN 0-88730-891-0. This book provides a timeline and description of the activities that took place at Xerox PARC during the development of the Alto. It details the efforts of Charles Thacker and the other people involved with the creation of the Alto and the importance of the concepts contained in the Alto hardware and software. https://books.google.com/books?id=lzgOduibRJgC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Alto: A Personal Computer Hardware Manual. August 1976, A description of the hardware and the standard microcode. “This document is a description of the Alto, a small personal computing system originally designed at PARC. By 'personal computer' we mean a non-shared system containing sufficient processing power, storage, and input-output capability to satisfy the computational needs of a single user.” http://bitsavers.informatik.uni-stuttgart.de/pdf/xerox/alto/Alto_Hardware_Manual_Aug76.pdf

“The Alto and Ethernet Software.” Butler Lampson, 1986. Description of the Alto Ethernet software published in the Association for Computing Machinery journal. “The personal distributed computing system based on the Alto and the Ethernet was a major effort to make computers help people to think and communicate. The paper describes the complex and diverse collection of software that was built to pursue this goal, ranging from operating systems, programming environments, and communications software to printing and file servers, user interfaces, and applications such as editors, illustrators, and mail systems.” http://www.bwlampson.site/38-AltoSoftware/WebPage.html

“The Alto and Ethernet Hardware.” Charles Thacker, 1986. Description of the Alto Ethernet hardware published in the Association for Computing Machinery journal. “Between 1972 and 1980, the first distributed personal computing system was built at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The system was composed of a number of Alto workstations connected by an Ethernet local network. It also included servers that provided centralized facilities. This paper describes the development of the hardware that was the basis of the system.” https://courses.cs.washington.edu/courses/csep590/06au/readings/Thacker.Alto.Hardware.pdf

“The Xerox Alto Computer,” Thomas A. Wadlow, Page 58, Byte Magazine, September 1981. This article confirms the Alto as the beginning of the personal computer as an important tool for research. “In 1972, Xerox Corporation decided to produce a personal computer for research. The result was the Alto computer, whose name comes from the Xerox Palo Also Research Center where it was developed. The Alto was the result of a joint effort by Ed McCreight, Chuck Thacker, Butler Lampson, Bob Sproull, and Dave Boggs, who were attempting to make a device that was small enough to fit in an office comfortably, but powerful enough to support a reliable, high quality operating system and graphics display. Their goal was to provide each user with a personal computing facility capable of meeting all individual needs and a communications facility that would allow users to share information easily. In 1978 Xerox donated a total of fifty Altos to Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). These machines were quickly assimilated into the research community and rapidly became the standard against which other personal computers were judged.” https://archive.org/details/byte-magazine-1981-09/page/n59

“The Alto and Ethernet System Xerox PARC in the 1970’s,” Butler Lampson, Microsoft Research, October 17, 2006. http://www.bwlampson.site/Slides/AltoAtPARCIn1970s.pdf

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. Leslie Berlin, 2017, Simon & Shuster, pages 101-106, 221-224 ISBN 978-1-4516-5150-8. In this book Leslie Berlin tells the story of the Alto and the men who produced it. One of the items to note is the following excerpt: “The flagship software program on the Alto was a word processing program called Bravo. (Its writer, Charles Simonyi, would later move to Microsoft, where Bravo became the design influence for Microsoft Word.)” https://www.amazon.com/Troublemakers-Silicon-Valleys-Coming-Age-ebook/dp/B06ZZ1YDTX#reader_B06ZZ1YDTX

Supporting materials (supported formats: GIF, JPEG, PNG, PDF, DOC): All supporting materials must be in English, or if not in English, accompanied by an English translation. You must supply the texts or excerpts themselves, not just the references. For documents that are copyright-encumbered, or which you do not have rights to post, email the documents themselves to ieee-history@ieee.org. Please see the Milestone Program Guidelines for more information.

“Yesterday’s Computer of Tomorrow: The Xerox Alto.” Computer History Museum event. November 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m_GhapEBLQ

Xerox Alto Source Code https://www.computerhistory.org/atchm/xerox-alto-source-code/

1972 commercial for the Xerox Alto. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjvSWCQVpJ0

Video ethnography of ICARUS on Xerox Alto. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BauuOoB6EIU&t=5s

Video ethnography of GYPSY on Xerox Alto. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhmz68CII9Y

Video ethnography of SMALLTALK on Xerox Alto. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uknEhXyZgsg&t=2844s

Alto Operating System Reference Manual. Description of the Alto operating system compiled in 1980 at PARC. http://bitsavers.org/pdf/xerox/alto/memos_1975/Alto_Operating_System_Reference_Manual_Jun75.pdf

Bravo Manual. Bravo was the first What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) word processing program. http://www.bitsavers.org/pdf/xerox/alto/BravoXMan.pdf

Gypsy Operators Handbook. Document publishing program for the Alto. http://www.bitsavers.org/pdf/xerox/alto/gypsy/Gypsy_Operators_Handbook_May1978.pdf

Markup Users Manual. Markup is an Alto program for document illustration. Its basic purpose is to permit you to add illustrations to an existing formatted text document. http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/pdf/xerox/alto/Alto_Users_Handbook_Sep79.pdf

Alto Users Handbook. September 1979. Provides instructions for non-programmers on the use of the Alto. http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/pdf/xerox/alto/Alto_Users_Handbook_Sep79.pdf

Xerox Inter-Office Memorandum from Butler Lampson, “Why Alto?” December 12, 1972. In this document, Butler provides this statement about the performance of the Alto: “The system is capable of doing almost any computation which a PDP-10 can do. For most problems it can deliver better performance to the user than a time-shared 10, even if the latter is lightly loaded.” http://www.bwlampson.site/38a-WhyAlto/Acrobat.pdf