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

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

by Michael A. Hiltzik
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

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

by Michael A. Hiltzik

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780887309892
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/05/2000
Edition description: 1 PBK ED
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 682,020
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.09(d)

About 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.

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 Robert W. Taylor looks amused and slightly out of date, his sandy hair longer than one might wear it today but unfashionably short for the distant time period when the picture was taken by the famous photographer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"...

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Time Machine

Part I: Prodigies
Chapter 1: The Impresario
Chapter 2: McColough's Folly
Chapter 3: The House on Porter Drive
Chapter 4: Utopia
Chapter 5: Berkeley's Second System
Chapter 6: "Not Your Normal Person"
Chapter 7: The Clone
Chapter 8: The Future Invented

Part II: Inventors
Chapter 9: The Refugee
Chapter 10: Beating the Dealer
Chapter 11: Spacewar
Chapter 12: Thacker's Bet
Chapter 13: The Bobbsey Twins Build a Network
Chapter 14: What You See Is What You Get
Chapter 15: On the Lunatic Fringe
Chapter 16: The Pariahs
Chapter 17: The Big Machine

Part III: Messengers
Chapter 18: Futures Day
Chapter 19: Future Plus One
Chapter 20: The Worm That Ate the Ethernet
Chapter 21: The Silicon Revolution
Chapter 22: The Crisis of Biggerism
Chapter 23: Steve Jobs Gets His Show and Tell
Chapter 24: Supernova
Chapter 25: Blindsided
Chapter 26: Exit the Impresario

Epilogue: Did Xerox Blow It?
Source Notes
Glossary of Selected Terms

What People are Saying About This

Stewart Brand

The legend of early Xerox PARC was a great morality tale of corporate misuse of 'creatives' and the new world they unleashed anyway. The true story is better still.


On Monday, March 15th, 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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