Cover art for podcast The History of Computing

The History of Computing

211 EpisodesProduced by Charles EdgeWebsite

Computers touch all most every aspect of our lives today. We take the way they work for granted and the unsung heroes who built the technology, protocols, philosophies, and circuit boards, patched them all together - and sometimes willed amazingness out of nothing. Not in this podcast. Welcome to th… read more


Xerox Alto

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! Todays episode is about the Xerox Alto. Close your eyes and… Wait, don’t close your eyes if you’re driving. Or on a bike. Or boating. Or… Nevermind, don’t close your eyes But do use your imagination, and think of what it would be like if you opened your phone… Also don’t open your phone while driving. But imagine opening your phone and ordering a pizza using a black screen with green text and no pictures. If that were the case, you probably wouldn’t use an app to order a pizza. Without a graphical interface, or GUI, games wouldn’t have such wide appeal. Without a GUI you wouldn’t probably use a computer nearly as much. You might be happier, but we’ll leave that topic to another podcast. Let’s jump in our time machine and head back to 1973. The Allman Brothers stopped drinking mushroom tea long enough to release Ramblin’ Man, Elton John put out Crocodile Rock, both Carpenters were still alive, and Free Bird was released by Lynard Skynyrd. Nixon was the president of the United States, and suspends offensive actions in North Vietnam, 5 days before being sworn into his second term as president. He wouldn’t make it all four years of course because not long after, Watergate broke, and by the end of the year Nixon claimed “I’m not a crook”. The first handheld cell call is made by Martin Cooper, the World Trade Center opens, Secretariat wins the Belmont Stakes, Skylab 3 is launched, OJ was a running back instead of running from the police, being gay was removed from the DSM, and the Endangered Species Act was passed in the US. But many a researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center, known as Xerox Parc, probably didn’t notice much of this as they were hard at work at doing something many people in Palo Alto talk about these days but rarely do: changing the world. In 1973, Xerox released the Alto, which had the first computer operating system designed from the ground up to support a GUI. It was inspired by the oN-Line System (or NLS for short), which had been designed by Douglas Engelbert of the Stanford Research Institute in the 60s on a DARPA grant. They’d spent a year developing it and that was the day to shine for Doublers Steward, John Ellenby, Bob Nishimura, and Abbey Silverstone. The Alto ran the Alto Executive operating system, had a 2.5 megabyte hard drive, ran with four 74181 MSI chips that ran at a 5.88 MHz clock speed and came with between 96 and 512 kiloBytes of memory. It came with a mouse, which had been designed by Engelbert for NLS. The Alto I ran a pilot of 30 and then an additional 90 were produced and sold before the Alto II was released. Over the course of 10 years, Xerox would sell 2000 more. Some of the programming concepts were borrowed from the Data General Nova, designed by Edson de Castro, a former DEC product manager responsible for the PDP-8. The Alto could run 16 cooperative, prioritized tasks. It was about the size of a mini refrigerator and had a CRTO on a swivel. It also came with an Ethernet connection, a keyboard, a three-button mouse a disk drive, and first a wheel mouse, later followed up with a ball mouse. That monitor was in portrait rather than the common landscape of later computers. You wrote software in BCPL and Mesa. It used raster graphics, came with a document editor, the Laurel email app, and gave us an actual multi-player video game. Oh, and a early graphics editor. And the first versions of Smalltalk - a language we’ll do an upcoming episode on, ran on the Alto. 50 of these were donated to universities around the world in 1978, including Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon, inspiring a whole generation of computer scientists. One ended up in the White House. But perhaps the most important of the people that were inspired, was Steve Jobs, when he saw one at Xerox Parc, the inspiration for the first Mac. The sales numbers weren’t off the charts though. Byte magazine said: It is unlikely that a person outside of the computer-science research community will ever be able to buy an Alto. They are not intended for commercial sale, but rather as development tools for Xerox, and so will not be mass-produced. What makes them worthy of mention is the fact that a large number of the personal computers of tomorrow will be designed with knowledge gained from the development of the Alto. The Alto was sold for $32,000 in 1979 money, or well over $100,000 today. So they were correct. $220,000,000 over 10 years is nothing. The Alto then begat the Xerox Star, which in 1981 killed the Alto and sold at half the price. But Xerox was once-bitten, twice shy. They’d introduced a machine to rival the DEC PDP-10 and didn’t want to jump into this weird new PC business too far. If they had wanted to they might have released something somewhere between the Star and the Commodore VIC-20, which ran for about $300. Even after the success of the Apple II, which still paled in comparison to the business Xerox is most famous for: copiers. Imagine what they thought of the IBM PCs and Apple II, when they were a decade ahead of that? I’ve heard may say that with all of this technology being invented at Xerox, that they could have owned the IT industry. Sure, Apple went from $774,000 in 1977 to $118 million in 1980 but then CEO Peter McColough was more concerned about the loss of market share for copiers, which dipped from 65 to 46 percent at the time. Xerox revenues had gone from $1.6 billion dollars to $8 billion in the 70s. And there were 100,000 people working in that group! And in the 90s Xerox stock would later skyrocket up to $250/share! They invented Laser Printing, WYSIWYGs, the GUI, Ethernet, Object Oriented Programming, Ubiquitous computing with the PARCtab, networking over optical cables, data storage, and so so so much more. The interconnected world of today likely wouldn’t be what it is without other people iterating on their contributions, but more specifically likely wouldn’t be what it is if they had hoarded them. They made a modicum of money off most of these - and that money helped to fund further research, like hosting the first live streamed concert. Xerox still rakes in over $10 billion in a year in revenue and unlike many companies that went all-in on PCs or other innovations during the incredible 112 year run of Xerox, they’re still doing pretty well. Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, 10 years after Dell was founded. Computing was changing so fast, who can blame Xerox? IBM was reinvented in the 80s because of the PC boom - but it also almost put them out of business. We’ll certainly cover that in a future episode. I’m glad Xerox is still in business, still making solid products, and still researching all the things! So thank you to everyone at every level of Xerox, for all your organization has contributed over the years, including the Alto, which shaped how computers are used today. And thank YOU patient listeners, for tuning in to this episode of the History Of Computing Podcast. We hope you have a great day!

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