05/12/2021

036 – Singing alto – 1972

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All problems in Computer Science can be solved by another level of indirection.  Chuck Thacker

1968 Butler Lampson, an OS designer, and Chuck Thacker, a hardware designer, left UCB where they had been involved with Project Genie to co-found the Berkeley Computer Corporation.

With $4m in funding the corporation assembled a group of high-flyers from Project Genie and other UCB teams – JPL, UCB, SDS and MIT. 

Sadly it failed to find sales and marketing talent and two years of development, a prototype and strong software all came to naught.

Bob Taylor recruited the duo to join PARC where Lampson and Thacker became the central technologists for many of projects.

PARC was refused a DEC PDP-10 as Xerox owned SDS and therefore they instead led the development of their own version which they named MAX-C, defined as Multiple Access Xerox Computer but clearly  a reference to the CEO of SDS, Max Palevsky.  It used their BCC experience in microcode, with circuitry replaced by software.

1972 Thacker’s report ‘A Personal Computer with Micro-parallel Processing’ outlined the next steps.  Having approached Alan Kay to build his Dynabook, the effort instead led to the Xerox Alto, named after their location which was Palo Alto.

Alto was started in late 1972 using a language named Mesa.  It was designed by Lampson and Thacker based on ALGOL and run within TENEX OS.  Mesa was adopted as the PARC language of choice on the Dolphin, Dorado and Dandelion; the generic name for these was D* or dee-star.  Mesa later proved valuable in disseminating GUIs to other platforms and influenced Java and Modula.

The original plan was to develop thirty Altos.  This was never intended to be a commercial product yet Alto was one of the first truly personal computers – though in fact more a workstation than a PC.

When the prototype was completed something was needed on the screen and Alan Kay digitised the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street – the first ever PC graphic!

Alto had four parts – a floor-standing storage and processor box the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet, a keyboard, a graphics mouse and a screen.  The processor box contained a custom-built transistor-transistor logic processor modelled around the Data General Nova 1220.  There was no microprocessor but it sported two 3-megabyte disk drives.

The screen was a US letter-sized portrait-oriented screen providing a display of 60 lines x 90 characters. The keyboard resembled a typewriter keyboard and the mouse had three black keys designated red, yellow and blue!  The Alto proved slow but had the major virtue that the user had exclusive use of its power rather than having to share and reserve overnight time to get enough access.

1978 Xerox donated fifty Altos to Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, and MIT for research but rejected two proposals to market the Alto.  It later approved work on an Alto II but dismissed an Alto II word processor proposal.  It must have been frustrating to have developed all this good stuff and not be permitted to release it!

1978 2,000 Altos had been built and used for document preparation on a local area network at Xerox PARC and by a number of campuses.  The notional price for an Alto, if it had been able to be purchased, was $32,000.

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