Dealers of Lightning

It was the late 70s, and this concept of a personal computer was approaching a difficult coming-of-age. Everyone knew that the computer would change everything, but the race was on to define how that would look.

In the labs and offices of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) a group of engineers and scientists pulled together ideas and concepts into a computer called the Alto. The main unit was about the size of a filing cabinet, while a landscape monitor, keyboard and mouse would sit on the desk. The computing environment consisted of windows, menus and icons on a bitmapped screen capable of rendering detailed graphics. No one had ever seen such a thing before, and although the Alto never made it out of the scientific world, it was shown to a team from Apple – including a young Steve Jobs.

The rest, of course, is history – legend even. It’s said that Bill Atkinson (the author of the QuickDraw ROM and MacPaint) excitedly pressed his face against the Alto’s screen, trying to count the pixels. The group from Apple returned to their headquarters in Cupertino, and so impressed was Jobs at what he’d seen, that he immediately spun off this rogue team first to the Apple LISA, and soon after to work on the Macintosh – computers with a bitmapped screen, mouse, windows, menus and icons. Others followed suit.

Of course the Macintosh wasn’t Apple’s only invention – nor was the Alto Xerox’ only invention. PARC is responsible for scripting languages, the laser printer, Ethernet and even the concept behind Tablet PCs/iPads – a theoretical device called the DynaBook. Virtually everything we know about modern computers was defined in one of these two campuses, or another in Redmond, Washington that I get to visit more frequently.

These are all things that I’ve known about for over a decade: fables, folklore, legend. The places where these things happened were no less fantastic to me, and therefore no more real, than planets in the Star Wars galaxy…

Until last week.

As I finished up a couple nice days working with some partners, I pulled up Bing Maps to look for a place for dinner… and realised I was only 36 minutes away from Cupertino, and another 10 from Palo Alto. I practically ran to my car – locking myself out of my hotel room, and forgetting that the battery in my GPS was nearly dead and I didn’t have a car charger – and started driving. I nursed the GPS along, turning it on for brief moments to orient myself, and drove through some beautiful California country-side to the places where dreams came to life…

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That I have walked the sidewalks where giants of this industry tread – where perhaps they paced as they wrestled through ideas so big that they would change the world – is such an incredible honor. But to make this story even more incredible, I realised recently that I’ve met, and chatted with one of those giants! At a conference last November in Los Angeles, I attended a talk by a Butler Lampson – a researcher at my company – on artificial intelligence. Later, I came across him reading on the show floor and stopped to have a chat with him.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that this Butler Lampson was the same one who, almost 40 years ago, penned a memo detailing the design of a revolutionary computer. At the time, he was a researcher at Xerox PARC, and the computer he dreamt up… it was called the Alto.

I am literally working in the shadow of giants, in the cradle of some of the most remarkable inventions ever, surrounded by some of the most amazing minds of our time… and I could not be more grateful and blessed to have this incredible job.

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One thought on “Dealers of Lightning

  1. It is really neat that you get to have this experience, and you write about it well; so well I can sense your excitement.

    Don’t mean to go all Biblical on you, but I always find it hard to reconcile my joy in the work that I do with the idea of work being part of “the curse” God laid on mankind for disobedience.

    It has always seemed to me that I was much happier with God’s curses that the Devil’s pleasures, which always seem to come with such heavy debt of pain and shame.

    I am glad that you have work that brings you joy.

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