As one of the original members of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), I have always been proud of the contributions we made to the field of personal computing in the 1970’s, driven, in part, by earlier ideas developed by Alan Kay and others. Kay’s “Dynabook” was a vision of a mobile computing device (much like today’s tablets) but it required technology that was unavailable at the time. Our device, the Alto, was split between two boxes – one for the computer hardware, and another for the display. It is safe to say that much of the look and feel of computing follows a straight line path from our lab to the present.
But, was PARC the real home of personal computing? Perhaps in its implementation (that was part of our charter), but in fact others had been thinking about the idea before PARC was created. As described in an article in ComputerWorld (http://bit.ly/LeCmj) a group of thinkers (and doers) in San Antonio, Texas may have been the first to think seriously about the design of a computer that would belong to individuals, not sitting in a corporate “computer room” somewhere. Their company, CTC (later changed to Datapoint) was in the computer terminal business building what we used to call “glass teletypes”. These desktop boxes had a display and keyboard and were designed as input/output devices for centralized computers. Many of us using these devices, referred to them as “dumb terminals,” because they seemingly lacked the power to do any computing on their own.
What we didn’t see at the time was that these devices were designed to be Trojan horses. The were programmable at some level, and could easily have been morphed into true personal computers. The design of the Intel x86 class of microprocessors grew out of the thinking behind the Datapoint terminal, and the founders of the company were keenly interested in building a computer, but lacked the financial support to bring a separate terminal to market.
So why didn’t this device take off?
Well, the “computing” aspect of their device was not part of the original business plan. The seeds were there, and had even been planted at Intel (where they bloomed into a huge business.) As for Datapoint itself, it fell on hard times and faded from the scene.
Faded, but not forgotten. Yes, we at PARC may have invented modern personal computing as you know it, but we need to acknowledge the contributions of others – especially the CTC team who just may have been the first to think that you and I deserved our very own computers.