Last year I had a great time reading ‘The Innovators’ by Walter Isaacson, a wonderful book that spans computing history from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace to our days. There are a lot of stories inside the book and each can only be a short summary of events. That’s why I also enjoy reading books about particular parts of computing history, and ‘Dealers of Lightning’ by Michael Hiltzik on the history of personal computing at Xerox PARC is just one of those.
When thinking about the history of the personal computer, The Altair, the Home Brew Computer Club, Apple, IBM, Commodore, Atari and other companies come to mind. But that’s only half of the story and they are not part of the book for the most part. ‘Dealers of Lightning’ deals with the other half of the story that takes place in the 1970’s and early 1980’s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Here, researchers did not only invent the laser printer, Ethernet and object oriented programming, but also created the Alto, the first personal computer with a graphical user interface. I was so revolutionary that it was an inspiration for Steve Jobs when Apple worked on the Lisa and later the Macintosh. PARC approached the personal computer from a big company and scientific angle and a lot of money to build big and expensive machines. According to the book they referred to the Alto as a ‘time machine’, very well aware that the Alto was way too expensive for the mass market at its time, but that Moore’s law would allow to build such a machine far cheaper just a couple of years down the road.
It eventually happened, just not from their direction. Instead the first personal computers were produced by MITS, a company in New Mexico for a few hundred dollars and hobbyists in garages in California who would later found companies such as Apple that would become multi-billion dollar companies. Crude by Alto standards but cheap enough for almost anyone to buy who wanted to have one.
Xerox on the other hand never saw what they had in their hands and missed the train which the book goes to great lengths to lay out. It’s interesting to see how great ideas brought PARC to life and how corporate reality of a big company would fail to exploit the results to a large degree. But the ideas that were put into reality at PARC disseminated and a lot of people who worked there eventually moved on to those garage companies that later became empires and made their fortunes there.
So if you are interested in that other half of the personal computer’s history, ‘Dealers of Lightning‘ should be on your reading list.