Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

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Overview

In the bestselling tradition of The Soul of a New Machine, Dealers of Lightning is a fascinating journey of intellectual creation. In the 1970s and '80s, Xerox Corporation brought together a brain-trust of engineering geniuses, a group of computer eccentrics dubbed PARC. This brilliant group created several monumental innovations that triggered a technological revolution, including the first personal computer, the laser printer, and the graphical interface (one of the main precursors of the Internet), only to see...

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Overview

In the bestselling tradition of The Soul of a New Machine, Dealers of Lightning is a fascinating journey of intellectual creation. In the 1970s and '80s, Xerox Corporation brought together a brain-trust of engineering geniuses, a group of computer eccentrics dubbed PARC. This brilliant group created several monumental innovations that triggered a technological revolution, including the first personal computer, the laser printer, and the graphical interface (one of the main precursors of the Internet), only to see these breakthroughs rejected by the corporation. Yet, instead of giving up, these determined inventors turned their ideas into empires that radically altered contemporary life and changed the world.

Based on extensive interviews with the scientists, engineers, administrators, and executives who lived the story, this riveting chronicle details PARC's humble beginnings through its triumph as a hothouse for ideas, and shows why Xerox was never able to grasp, and ultimately exploit, the cutting-edge innovations PARC delivered. Dealers of Lightning offers an unprecedented look at the ideas, the inventions, and the individuals that propelled Xerox PARC to the frontier of technohistoiy--and the corporate machinations that almost prevented it from achieving greatness.

Michael Hiltzik was awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for beat reporting in the Los Angeles Times.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
March 1999

While Gates, Jobs, and the other big boys of Silicon Valley are basking in the glory of the information age, renowned Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik reveals how, back in the early '70s, a group of inventors at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) blazed the trail for all of today's indispensable technology — from the PC to email to ATMs to meteorologists' weather maps. And they did it without fanfare or recognition from their employer. Hiltzik's Dealers of Lightning provides a fascinating look at technohistory that sets the record straight.

In Dealers of Lightning, Hiltzik describes the forces and faces behind the revolution that the Xerox PARC team single-handedly spawned. The Xerox PARC group was composed solely of top technical minds. The decision was made at Xerox headquarters to give the team complete freedom from deadlines and directives, in hopes of fostering a true creative environment. It worked — perhaps too well. The team responded with a steady output of amazing technology, including the first version of the Internet, the first personal computer, user-friendly word-processing programs, and pop-up menus. Xerox, far from ready for the explosion of innovation, failed to utilize the technology dreamed up by the group. Out of all the dazzling inventions born at Xerox PARC, only a handful were developed and marketed by Xerox. However, one of these inventions, the laser printer, proved successful enough to earn billions for the company, therefore justifying its investment in the research center. Most oftheteam's creations would go on to be developed and perfected by other companies, such as IBM, Apple, and Microsoft.

Drawing from interviews with the engineers, executives, and scientists involved in the Xerox PARC, Dealers of Lightning chronicles an amazing era of egos, ideas, and inventions at the dawn of the computer age.

Michael Swaine

The founder of Federal Express got a C on the college paper he wrote describing the idea for his company. FedEx and its competitors are doing pretty well now.

Although I don't agree with Hiltzig that the Alto was the world's first personal computer, that's just a matter of different definitions -- his strictly technological, mine involving price and marketing as well. I have a few other quibbles with the book, but, overall, I found it highly readable and seemingly authoritative. In writing the book, Hiltzig drew on the recollections of those who were there, interviewing all the obvious suspects and not a few innocent bystanders.

The book is worth reading just to remind yourself of the amazing invention machine PARC was -- and of the amazing collection of inventors who were there.

The development of the Alto, of course, but also:

  • Jim Clark the cofounder of Netscape designing the Geometry Engine as part of a PARC-supervised course at Stanford and launching Silicon Graphics on the strength of it.
  • Lynn Conway of Mead and Conway, the most well-known names in VLSI developing the design techniques and tools to make VLSI a practical reality.
  • An offhand remark to Gary Starkweather leading to the invention of the laser printer.
  • Bob Metcalfe sifting through various networking options and coming up with Ethernet.
  • Alan Kay telling Dan Ingalls and Ted Kaehler that the most powerful programming language in the world could be specified in one page and, when challenged to put up or shut up, inventing Smalltalk.
  • Bob Taylor recruiting Bill English away from Doug Engelbart and getting access to the mouse and all the other goodies of Engelbart's lab.
  • Charles Simonyi inventing WYSIWYG.
  • Dan Ingalls shocking the crowd when he demonstrated bitblt.
  • John Warnock and Chuck Jeschke creating page-description languages.
  • Alvy Ray Smith coming up with the HSV transformation.

Hiltzig describes PARC's origins, the recruitment of talent, its culture, people, politics, and projects. He also spends a chapter on the question, "Did Xerox blow it?" That strikes me as overkill for a question that can be answered in a word -- Duh!

But I don't mean to belittle Hiltzig's analysis of the politics of PARC. He does an impressive job of telling not only what happened, but why and how it happened, and how Xerox management both hindered and empowered this amazing band of inventors.

If this is failure, we should all be so unsuccessful.
Electronic Review of Books

Michael Mattis
As tech books go, Dealers of Lightning is a veritable ripsnorter; a great read that's also a must read for anyone who purports to deal in innovation.
Business 2.0
David Pogue
...[L]ong, overly detailed but ultimately rewarding....It's almost agonizing to contemplate the missed opportunities....Xerox could easily have become the Microsoft of the era....[F]or any student of business or technology, Dealers of Lightning offers a gem of a story that has never been so well told.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anyone who uses a personal computer is familiar with technologies pioneered by Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which started operation in 1970. The received wisdom is that Xerox muffed the chance to dominate the personal computer era by allowing revolutionary technologies developed at PARC to be snatched up by strangers and rivals (most famously, Apple, which took the mouse and the graphical user interface from PARC). L.A. Times reporter Hiltzik argues that the received wisdom is wrong. He expertly situates the story of which products actually made it to market for Xerox (e.g., the laser printer) and which technologies Xerox leaked away (WYSIWYG word processing, hypertext, Ethernet and TCP/IP, to name a few) in a broader analysis of the role of basic science research in business. He praises Xerox execs for understanding the difference between basic research and product development and for exempting PARC from the stultifying effect of having to do the latter. Among the many facts of life on the cutting edge that Hiltzik makes abundantly clear is that very bad decisions are often made for very good business reasons. While granting that Xerox could certainly have better exploited the new technologies issuing from PARC, he emphasizes that the company brought together "a group of superlatively creative minds at the very moment when they could exert maximal influence on a burgeoning technology, and financed their work with unexampled generosity." This is a top-notch business page-turner. Unburdened by any gee-whiz jaw-dropping, yet fully appreciative of the power of creative minds, it is informed by a sure understanding of the complex relationship between business and technology. Major ad/promo. (Apr.)
From The Critics
Maybe the publisher of Dealers of Lightning – Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik's engaging new history of Xerox PARC – should have titled the book Where Wizards Behave Badly.

In Hiltzik's flashback to the Palo Alto, Calif.-based research arm of Xerox during the 1970s and 1980s, scruffy scientists lounged in state-of-the-art beanbag chairs and mercilessly dissected each other at legendary "dealer" meetings. Anyone who presented a less-than-brilliant idea was likely to be showered with a hail of "bullshits" – and maybe even a stray ashtray, like the one Butler Lampson (now a professor at MIT) once hurled at the head of Warren Teitelman (now a software exec).

"It was almost cultlike," remembers former PARC computer scientist Lynn Conway. Oh, and in their spare time, PARC's wizards also invented some cool stuff – like the first personal computer, the laser printer, the Mac-style graphical user interface and much of the Internet's underlying technology.

The book shines when it recounts the eureka moments behind the research lab's trailblazing technical achievements. While Hiltzik details its many blunders, he also argues against PARC's reputation for failing to capitalize on its inventions. As Hiltzik counters, "The truth is that [Xerox's] revenues from one invention alone, the laser printer, have come to billions of dollars – returning its investment in PARC many times over."

– Mickey Butts

David Pogue
...[L]ong, overly detailed but ultimately rewarding....It's almost agonizing to contemplate the missed opportunities....Xerox could easily have become the Microsoft of the era....[F]or any student of business or technology, Dealers of Lightning offers a gem of a story that has never been so well told.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In the late 1960s, Xerox founded a research center at Palo Alto, Calif. In time, that facility, known as PARC, became ground zero of the computer revolution, as recounted here.

In the dinosaur era of computing, a typical machine filled a large room and was shared by dozens of researchers. Los Angeles Times editor Hiltzik (A Death in Kenya: The Murder of Julie Ward, 1991) credits Robert W. Taylor, who assembled the PARC team, with changing that. Taylor's field was psychology, not engineering; but his vision of the computer as a communications device was a radical departure. He got his chance to realize it when Xerox's chief scientist Jacob Goldman persuaded his superiors to launch a basic research facility along the line of AT&T's famed Bell Labs. Xerox management, more interested in marketable products than in pure science, nearly killed the center before it opened. But Taylor gradually built his team of young computer hotshots, and the innovations flowed: mouse, Ethernet, even the term "personal computer."

By 1973, a team led by Chuck Thacker had created Alto, a computer small enough to fit under a desk. Its first program displayed an animated graphic as a test of the user interface: Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street. Two years later, Xerox was selling a mail-order computer kit called Altair 8800 — one of which inspired a young hobbyist named Bill Gates.

But except for the laser printer, Xerox consistently failed to exploit PARC's innovations. Instead, the company pushed the Star workstation, released in 1981. Within six months, IBM had released its first PC, and the Star was obsolete. Meanwhile, Microsoft and Apple Computer (both of which appropriated their design philosophy from PARC) were on the rise. Hiltzik focuses on the human dimensions of the story, taking full advantage of the rich cast of characters involved in earth-shaking developments.

A compulsively readable account of perhaps the most important technological undertaking since the Manhattan Project. Highly recommended.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780887309892
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 PBK ED
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 530,932
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael A. Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times. In 2004 he won a Gerald Loeb Award, the highest honor in American financial journalism. Hiltzik is the author of Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age and A Death in Kenya. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two sons.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Impresario

The photograph shows a handsome man in a checked sport shirt, his boyish face half-obscured by a cloud of pipe smoke. Robert W. Taylor looks amused and slightly out of date, his sandy hair longer than one might wear it today but unfashionably short for the distant time period when the picture was taken by the famous photographer of a trendy magazine. His gaze is fixed on something beyond the camera as though contemplating the future, which would befit the man who brought together perhaps the greatest collection of computer engineering talent ever to work in one place.

On a sunny afternoon in July 1996 the same photograph looked down at a gathering of that same talent in the open-air restaurant of a Northern California winery. There were some changes from when it was first shot, however. This time the picture was blown up bigger than fife, and the people celebrating under its amused gaze had aged a quarter-century

They were there to mark the retirement of Bob Taylor, the unlikely impresario of computer science at Xerox PARC. Among the guests were several of his intellectual mentors, including a few who ranked as genuine Grand Old Men of a young and still-fluid discipline. This group included Wes Clark, an irascible genius of hardware design who started his career when even the smallest computers had to be operated from within their cavernous entrails; and seated not far away, the flinty Douglas C. Engelbart, the uncompromising prophet of multimedia interactivity whose principles of graphical user interfaces and mouse-click navigation were disdained in his own time but have become ubiquitous inours.

Most of the company, however, consisted of Bob Taylor's chosen people. They were unabashed admirers whose careers he had launched by inviting them to sit beneath his commodious wing. Geniuses, prodigies, owners of doctorates from the leading halls of learning, they lived in the thrall of this psychologist from The University of Texas who stammered frightfully when trying to communicate an abstruse technical point, yet still managed to impart a vision of computing that reigns today on millions of desktops. Many moved on to more splendid achievements and some to astounding wealth. But none ever forgot how profoundly their professional lives were changed when Bob Taylor fixed them with his discerning eye and invited them to enlist in his tiny company of believers.

"As a leader of engineers and scientists he had no equal," said Chuck Thacker, who worked beside him longer than almost anyone else. "If you're looking for the magic, it was him."

Thacker served as the afternoon's master of ceremonies. Under his deft supervision the familiar old Bob Taylor stories got dusted off to be howled over anew. Bob arranging for Dr Pepper, the Texas state drink, to be imported into PARC "by the pallet load and stored in a special locked vault." Bob bombing through the streets of Washington in his Corvette Stingray as though saddled on a wild stallion. Or rigging his Alto to beep out "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" whenever he received an e-mail message on PARC's unique internal network. Taylor listened to it all in great good humor from the table of honor, way in the back, dressed in a short-sleeved striped shirt and resplendent cherry-red slacks. But then, nothing ever pleased him more than functioning as the lodestar of the proceedings while pretending to be nothing but an unassuming bystander.

Charles Simonyi, who was a naive young Hungarian immigrant without a green card when Taylor brought him to PARC in 1972, flew down from Seattle in his own Learjet, one of the perquisites that accrue to a man who moved from PARC to become employee number forty of a small company named Microsoft.

"I remember Bob preparing me to deal with the three most powerful forces of the twentieth century," he said. "One of these was personal distributed computing. The second was the Internet. And the third very powerful force is football."

Appreciative laughter rippled across the floor. Everyone present understood football as an emblem of the darker currents driving Bob Taylor's personality and career. They knew that as a competitor he was an absolutely ruthless creature and that to protect and glorify the work of his group he would blindly trample anyone in the way like a fullback scenting the goal line-be they rivals, superiors, or members of his own circle judged to have fallen prey to heretical thoughts.

Over the years these habits left a trail of roasted relationships. Most of the guests at the retirement lunch were polite enough not to remark openly that the company giving Taylor the gold watch was Digital Equipment Corporation, not Xerox. Or that among the party's conspicuous absentees were George Pake, who had hired him to establish and oversee the computer science laboratory at PARC, and Pake's successor, Bill Spencer, who evicted Taylor from PARC more than a decade later. The common knowledge was that for every guest who owed a career to the guest of honor there existed not a few individuals who had felt the sting of Taylor's rivalry and damned him as one of the most arrogant, elitist, and unprincipled persons on the planet.

The allusions to this discomfiting truth were mostly indirect. At his touch football games, it was recalled, he was always the quarterback. The former PARC engineer Dick Shoup recalled how at softball Taylor would invariably wave A the other infielders off a pop-up. One day Shoup complained, "Bob, the other people came to play, tool"...

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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters
Timeline
Introduction: The Time Machine
Pt. I Prodigies
Ch. 1 The Impresario 3
Ch. 2 McColough's Folly 21
Ch. 3 The House on Porter Drive 33
Ch. 4 Utopia 52
Ch. 5 Berkeley's Second System 68
Ch. 6 "Not Your Normal Person" 80
Ch. 7 The Clone 97
Ch. 8 The Future Invented 117
Pt. II Inventors
Ch. 9 The Refugee 127
Ch. 10 Beating the Dealer 145
Ch. 11 Spacewar 155
Ch. 12 Thacker's Bet 163
Ch. 13 The Bobbsey Twins Build a Network 178
Ch. 14 What You See Is What You Get 194
Ch. 15 On the Lunatic Fringe 211
Ch. 16 The Pariahs 229
Ch. 17 The Big Machine 242
Pt. III Messengers
Ch. 18 Futures Day 259
Ch. 19 Future Plus One 274
Ch. 20 The Worm That Ate the Ethernet 289
Ch. 21 The Silicon Revolution 300
Ch. 22 The Crisis of Biggerism 314
Ch. 23 Steve Jobs Gets His Show and Tell 329
Ch. 24 Supernova 346
Ch. 25 Blindsided 361
Ch. 26 Exit the Impresario 371
Epilogue: Did Xerox Blow It? 389
Afterlives 399
Source Notes 405
Glossary of Selected Terms 415
Bibliography 419
Acknowledgments 423
Index 427
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First Chapter

Chapter 1
The Impresario

The photograph shows a handsome man in a checked sport shirt, his boyish face half-obscured by a cloud of pipe smoke. Robert W. Taylor looks amused and slightly out of date, his sandy hair longer than one might wear it today but unfashionably short for the distant time period when the picture was taken by the famous photographer of a trendy magazine. His gaze is fixed on something beyond the camera as though contemplating the future, which would befit the man who brought together perhaps
the greatest collection of computer engineering talent ever to work in one place.

On a sunny afternoon in July 1996 the same photograph looked down at a gathering of that same talent in the open-air restaurant of a Northern California winery. There were some changes from when it was first shot, however. This time the picture was blown up bigger than life, and the people celebrating under its amused gaze had aged a quarter-century.

They were there to mark the retirement of Bob Taylor, the unlikely impresario of computer science at Xerox PARC. Among the guests were several of his intellectual mentors, including a few who ranked as genuine Grand Old Men of a young and still-fluid discipline. This group included Wes Clark, an irascible genius of hardware design who started his career when even the smallest computers had to be operated from within their cavernous entrails; and seated not far away, the flinty Douglas C. Engelbart, the uncompromising prophet of multimedia interactivity whose principles of graphical user interfaces and mouse-click navigation were disdained in his own time but have become ubiquitous in ours.

Most of the company, however, consisted of Bob Taylor's chosen people. They were unabashed admirers whose careers he had launched by inviting them to sit beneath his commodious wing. Geniuses, prodigies, owners of doctorates from the leading halls of learning, they lived in the thrall of this psychologist from The University of Texas who stammered frightfully when trying to communicate an abstruse technical point, yet still managed to impart a vision of computing that reigns today on millions of desktops. Many moved on to more splendid achievements and some to astounding wealth. But none ever forgot how profoundly their professional lives were changed when Bob Taylor fixed them with his discerning eye and invited them to enlist in his tiny company of believers.

"As a leader of engineers and scientists he had no equal," said Chuck Thacker, who worked beside him longer than almost anyone else. "If you're looking for the magic, it was him."

Thacker served as the afternoon's master of ceremonies. Under his deft supervision the familiar old Bob Taylor stories got dusted off to be howled over anew. Bob arranging for Dr Pepper, the Texas state drink, to be imported into PARC "by the pallet load and stored in a special locked vault." Bob bombing through the streets of Washington in his Corvette Stingray as though saddled on a wild stallion. Or rigging his Alto to beep out "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" whenever he received an e-mail message on PARC's unique internal network. Taylor listened to it all in great good humor from the table of honor, way in the back, dressed in a short-sleeved striped shirt and resplendent cherry-red slacks. But then, nothing ever pleased him more than functioning as the lodestar of the proceedings while pretending to be nothing but an unassuming bystander.

Charles Simonyi, who was a naive young Hungarian immigrant without a green card when Taylor brought him to PARC in 1972, flew down from Seattle in his own Learjet, one of the perquisites that accrue to a man who moved from PARC to become employee number forty of a small company named Microsoft.

"I remember Bob preparing me to deal with the three most powerful forces of the twentieth century," he said. "One of these was personal distributed computing. The second was the Internet. And the third very powerful force is football."

Appreciative laughter rippled across the floor. Everyone present understood football as an emblem of the darker currents driving Bob Taylor's personality and career. They knew that as a competitor he was an absolutely ruthless creature and that to protect and glorify the work of his group he would blindly trample anyone in the way like a fullback scenting the goal line--be they rivals, superiors, or members of his own circle judged to have fallen prey to heretical thoughts.

Over the years these habits left a trail of roasted relationships. Most of the guests at the retirement lunch were polite enough not to remark openly that the company giving Taylor the gold watch was Digital Equipment Corporation, not Xerox. Or that among the party's conspicuous absentees were George Pake, who had hired him to establish and oversee the computer science laboratory at PARC, and Pake's successor, Bill Spencer, who evicted Taylor from PARC more than a decade later. The common knowledge was that for every guest who owed a career to the guest of honor there existed not a few individuals who had felt the sting of Taylor's rivalry and damned him as one of the most arrogant, elitist, and unprincipled persons on the planet.

The allusions to this discomfiting truth were mostly indirect. At his touch football games, it was recalled, he was always the quarterback. The former PARC engineer Dick Shoup recalled how at softball Taylor would invariably wave all the other infielders off a pop-up. One day Shoup complained, "Bob, the other people came to play, too!"

"But they might miss it!" Taylor snapped. "Don't you want to win?"

Others dropped hints about Bob's genius at "managing down and in," meaning pampering and defending his own team, without explicitly stating the corollary: At managing up and out he was often a disaster. Finally one old colleague put into words what everyone always knew. "It's a lot better to work for Bob," he observed, "than to have Bob working for you."

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, March 15th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Michael Hiltzik to discuss DEALERS OF LIGHTNING.


Moderator: Thank you for joining us this evening, Michael Hiltzik. Your new book DEALERS OF LIGHTNING is fascinating. We have lots of questions in the queue. Are you ready to get started?

Michael Hiltzik: I am ready. Bring them on!


Tracey Lands from PA: What gave you the idea to do this book? Had this story broken before? If so, why didn't we hear more about it before, since Xerox PARC's impact was so large.

Michael Hiltzik: I got the idea for the book several years ago when I returned to the LA Times from a foreign assignment. The editor had asked me to start looking at tech issues including the info superhighway, as it was called at the time. As I began reading about the companies and people involved, I began seeing references to Xerox PARC as the source of much of the technology, but I could never find enough to read about it to satisfy my own curiosity, and eventually it became clear that if I wanted to learn more about it I would have to do the research myself. As for the second part of your question, there has been a lot written in the past about PARC, but never in this much depth, and I think what happens when a place or group of people become legends, the legends start getting repeated, and it is harder and harder to learn more in-depth about them.


Peter from Seattle: What were some of the biggest technological marvels to emerge from Xerox PARC?

Michael Hiltzik: The biggest one of all, I think, is the very paradigm of distributed computing -- that is, personal computers serving individuals all interlinked on a network and then linked separately to peripherals, such as printers and file servers and so on. This was a system that was created at Xerox PARC and, to this day, has not been improved upon in its fundamentals. As for specific tech, PARC engineers and scientists invented Ethernet, the IP part of TCP/IP, which is the fundamental protocol of the Internet, the laser printer, and many of the functions that we now know as the graphical user interface -- most familiar through Windows and the Mac.


Peter from Fredericksburg, VA: In your estimation, how could Xerox have been so blind-sighted?

Michael Hiltzik: I think a lot of it has to do with the kind of company Xerox was: It was large with more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand employees; it was monopolistic in that its fortunes had come from a company that it had owned outright to the '70s; and it was also distracted through the '70s and early '80s by a lot of challenges, including an anti-trust lawsuit and the loss of its copier patents and new competition from Japan. But, I might add that Xerox actually did try, within its habitual development efforts, to commercialize a lot of this technology -- it brought out the laser printer, and it did market a large-scale system of personal computers networked to printers and copiers known as the Star. But those arrived on the market after the IBM PC, which was cheaper and less sophisticated but more appealing to buyers.


Marcus Hansen from Williamsburg: Was it difficult to track down all the veterans of Xerox PARC whom you interviewed for this book? How did you go about doing it?

Michael Hiltzik: That is an interesting question. I relied to a great extent on the Internet, which allowed me to find telephone numbers and professional affiliations for dozens whose colleagues had lost track of them. Many other former PARC scientists have become very prominent in their own fields, and for still others there is a thriving network of contacts among the alumni. Still, I think I ended up becoming sort of a clearinghouse of info about where many people were and, on at least one occasion, I actually tracked down someone that everyone else at PARC had told me was dead.


Kate from Washington, DC: What was the work atmosphere like at the legendary Xerox PARC? Is it much like the work environments of the offices in Silicon Valley today?

Michael Hiltzik: The atmosphere varied from lab to lab, in part because each of the individual labs at PARC had their own personalities. In the computer science lab, principally the hardware lab which produced the ALTO personal computer and other highly sophisticated machines, the atmosphere probably resembled what you would find in any engineering-oriented corporation with people's ideas and designs being challenged and tested by their colleagues in a rather unforgiving but highly professional way. At the systems science lab, where people like Alan Kay and Bert Sutherland held sway, the atmosphere was much looser, because the ideas they were working on were much more speculative. But I think on the whole, the atmosphere was probably less intense than you will find in a present-day Silicon Valley shop for the simple reason that they were not under pressure to get a product out the door.


Manny from Philadelphia: After all your research, what's the secret as to why the engineers and scientists at Xerox were so tremendously inventive?

Michael Hiltzik: I think there are a lot of factors involved. For one thing, they had the luxury of working in a very novel field where they were able to take huge leaps ahead in knowledge in a very short time. One likened it to making the first footprints in a field of newly fallen snow. Moreover, they had what to them were almost unlimited budgets and, as I said, no pressure to actually produce an immediately commercializable product, and they had the energy that comes from being young and at the start of their careers in a new science. The bringing together of all these factors in one place was a unique condition.


Fred from Miami: How did Xerox recruit all the top tech minds to work for them? They certainly didn't retain them.

Michael Hiltzik: Xerox had benefited from some unusual advantages at that moment in time -- top universities were just beginning to turn out highly trained computer scientists in a very new field. Meanwhile, the national economy was entering into recession which meant there were very few other large corporations bidding for their services, and the US military, which had been one of the most important buyers of these sorts of skills, was sharply cutting back its research budget in part because of pressures of the Vietnam War. Because Xerox still had an enormous cash flow coming in from its copier monopoly, it emerged as the principal bidder for these scientists. Of course, thanks to the determination of people like Jack Goldman, Xerox's chief scientist at the time, Xerox was intent on creating a research center to employ them.


Greg from Dallas, TX: What was the first version of the Internet that was created at Xerox PARC?

Michael Hiltzik: There were several different networks that were developed at PARC, mostly to serve the needs of the research center and also the Xerox Corporation. But the network that had most to do with what later became the Internet was a system that employed what was known as the PARC universal packet, or PUP; this was a way of sending data from one local network, say at PARC, to another local PARC at Xerox headquarters via a larger network, Arpanet, which was the actual precursor to the Internet. PUP enabled data to move among these three incompatible networks without becoming garbled and thus was important to the development of the Internet as we now know it.


Randall from New Orleans: When the dust settles, which companies do you think will lead the technological field in the next millennium?

Michael Hiltzik: As I mentioned in my book, I think it is very hard to get a reliable feeling about which companies will be able to exploit these technologies in all their various incarnations. Certainly Hewlett Packard, despite its recent problems, has shown the ability to address dramatic changes in technology over time. But the lesson that the Xerox experience with PARC teaches us is that the larger and more successful companies become in any field, the harder it becomes for them to get their hands around new technologies that may require new mind sets. As I argue in my book, I don't think it is even a slam dunk that Microsoft, for all the power it rules today, will be the prevalent high tech company of even the near future.


Mark from White Falls: What do you think will happen to Microsoft? Give us some predictions!

Michael Hiltzik: That is a good question. I think Microsoft already shows the signs of being distracted from its core competencies. Its dabbling in content, cable operations, and so forth have by and large been unsuccessful, and I think that is a dangerous sign. On the other hand, they have also been able in the past to readjust to their own shortcomings, so I would say it might be too early yet to count them out. A lot will depend on the outcome of the anti-trust case.


Rayanne from Chicago: What are some of the biggest mistakes Xerox management made in not exploiting this group?

Michael Hiltzik: Xerox management had numerous chances to bring out versions of the ALTO, the personal computer, as an alternative to the ordinary word processors they marketed at the time. It is possible they could have made much more of a success of those machines had they been more nimble. They also delayed bringing out a laser printer for several years after they had the technology in hands and in marketable condition. Finally, Xerox's vision of how to develop this tech into a marketable version grew out of traditional Xerox development methods -- i.e. they viewed it as a large-scale program which would have taken five years to reach market when they could have reached market with this tech much sooner. Finally, they had no system for giving their scientists financial incentives to stay with the company and develop their innovations into products -- although, to be fair, very few other US corporations did any better.


Jake from Reno, TX: What do you think will be the biggest story of the next year in technology?

Michael Hiltzik: At this point, the biggest story looks like the mainstreaming of the Web into something that becomes much more of an appliance for consumers and business. I think this medium is about to reach critical mass, and we are going to see an explosion of applications and business uses in the next 12 months.


Laurie from Brooklyn, NY: Fast forward 25 years or so. Who do you think is making the same kind of mistakes now that Xerox management made back then?

Michael Hiltzik: To a certain extent, all of American business is making a mistake in the way it deals with basic research. US corporations are very results-oriented today in ways that Xerox, AT&T (through its Bell labs), and IBM (through its Yorktown Heights lab) were not. Companies today seem much more reluctant to finance the sort of open-ended research that led to the achievements of PARC and those other labs. So I think that tieing your research to the narrow demands of your business plan may mean that you will save money in the short run, but it won't lead to the startling leaps of knowledge that we have gotten in the past. I suppose a short way of saying this is that corporations today aren't even giving themselves the opportunity to make the sort of mistakes Xerox made and that may leave us all poorer.


Hank from University of VA: Was there a Eureka moment when the Xerox employees realized what had been lost in terms of credit? How did they respond?

Michael Hiltzik: Yes, there were a couple. One occurred in 1977 when Xerox formally decided not to bring out a version of the ALTO as a programmable word processor. This led to PARC's appearance later that year at the Xerox World Conference in Boca Raton, Florida, where they were given a full day to display their tech to the 250 highest ranking executives of Xerox, but despite their great success at what became known as "Future Day," they soon saw that there would be almost no marketing follow-up. Soon after that, when Steve Jobs got his demonstration of PARC technology and incorporated it into the Apple Lisa and Macintosh, the Eureka moment was understanding that there was a world outside of PARC that was anxious to exploit their inventions.


Moderator: Thank you once again for coming online with us tonight, Michael Hiltzik. You have been a terrific guest. Before you sign off, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?

Michael Hiltzik: I have enjoyed being here, and I think I would say that I find it very important, given the influence that technology has on our lives in the modern age, to understand not only where it comes from and how it works but to understand the very process by which innovation comes about and business tries to transfer those innovations to the outside world and society at large. And that is what I hope I accomplished with DEALERS OF LIGHTNING.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2002

    Who knew Xerox invented it all?

    Few are aware that Xerox created an R&D group in California, known as PARC, that ultimately invented all we currently know about PC's and Mac's. This book does an excellent job of describing how the greatest technical advance of the 20th century was invented by Xerox who had no idea of what it owned and ultimately lost control of almost all of its intellectual property.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2000

    Solid Book on the Origins of the Computer

    A facinating read on the origins of the computer industry, particularly in relationship to the development of the personal computer. If you ever wonder why and where certain computer terminology came from, a lot of it is spell out here.

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