The Xerox PARC Visit

The closest thing in the history of computing to a Prometheus myth is the late 1979 visit to Xerox PARC by a group of Apple engineers and executives led by Steve Jobs. According to early reports, it was on this visit that Jobs discovered the mouse, windows, icons, and other technologies that had been developed at PARC. These wonders had been locked away at PARC by a staff that didn't understand the revolutionary potential of what they had created. Jobs, in contrast, was immediately converted to the religion of the graphical user interface, and ordered them copied by Apple, starting down the track that would eventually yield the Lisa and "insanely great" Macintosh. The Apple engineers-- that band of brothers, that bunch of pirates-- stole the fire of the gods, and gave it to the people.

It's a good story. Unfortunately, it's also wrong in almost every way a story can be wrong. There are problems with chronology and timing. The testimony of a number of key figures at Apple suggests that the visit was not the revelation early accounts made it out to be. But the story also carries deeper assumptions about Apple, Xerox PARC, computer science in the late 1970s, and even the nature of invention and innovation that deserve to be examined and challenged.


Macintosh and Lisa

Both the Macintosh and Lisa projects were underway before the 1979 visit. Documents in The Book of Macintosh (a collection of essays, technical specs, and brainstorms written by Jef Raskin on and others) dating from the fall of 1979-- months before the PARC visit-- show that the Macintosh was going to feature user-friendly interfaces; a screen that could handle multiple fonts (that is, bitmapped screens); graphics capabilities; and a graphical input device.

The Lisa was also moving toward a bitmapped screen, under pressure from Raskin and Lisa's graphics engineer, Bill Atkinson. Atkinson argued that "if you're going to do mixed text and graphics together, you have got to use a white background," rather than a character generator screen. "The [hardware] engineers screamed bloody murder," he later recalled, but eventually the Lisa adopted a bitmapped screen. Jef Raskin likewise urged Lisa project manager Ken Rothmuller to use a bitmapped screen, and demonstrated the virtues of such a system by showing off a Macintosh prototype.

Previous Ties

But a number of Apple engineers were already familiar with PARC, its work, or technologies like the mouse. Bill Atkinson had read about Smalltalk as an undergraduate. Some had worked at PARC: Jef Raskin spent time there during a sabbatical year at Stanford, and had a number of friends who were researchers there. Finally, there were even some Apple employees whose had learned about the mouse while working for Douglas Engelbart at SRI in the 1960s and early 1970s, or Tymshare in the later 1970s.

Two Visits, Not One

Finally, as several authors have pointed out, there were actually two visits by groups from Apple to Xerox PARC in 1979. Steve Jobs was on the second of the two. Jef Raskin, who helped arranged both visits, explained that he wanted Jobs to visit PARC to understand work that was already going on at Apple. The Macintosh project had escaped the chopping block several times, and Raskin had tried to explain to Jobs the significance of the technologies it was incorporating. By showing that other companies considered this kind of work exciting, Raskin hoped to boost the value of the Macintosh's work in Jobs' eyes. Unbeknownst to Raskin, Jobs had his own reasons for visiting PARC: Xerox's venture capital arm had recently made an investment in Apple, and had agreed to show Apple what was going on in its lab.

Deeper Issues

But matters of chronology and prior influence are only the most obvious flaws in the Promethean myth. There are two subtler issues. First, it assumes that Xerox PARC's ideas weren't well-known before Apple engineers saw them, or had even been actively kept hidden from public view. A review of PARC's history will help make sense of that assumption. Second, it places commercialization on a lower plane than invention. Whatever differences there were between the Alto and Macintosh are relatively unimportant, because development is less significant than research.

What was Xerox PARC?

Xerox PARC was founded in 1970. Like Apple, it displayed a remarkable savvy in its hiring. Robert Taylor, head of the Computer Science Division, was formerly director of the ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office, and in this capacity he had supported-- even served as catalyst for-- much of the most important research in computer science of the 1960s. When he joined Xerox PARC, he recruited heavily from his ARPA networks, and brought together engineers and researchers who had been at the forefront of a number of branches of computer science. He also collected fragments of groups from other Bay Area institutions, including several people from Douglas Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center. In the 1960s ARC staff had developed the computer mouse and done pioneering work in window-based interfaces and networking. By the early 1970s, some ARC staff were eager to strike out on their own; Taylor recruited them to PARC, where they continued to work on those same technologies. Thus PARC's own work drew on-- and in many cases, significantly improved on-- already-existing work in interface design and input devices.

For the rest of the decade, PARC was one of those places whose brilliance and reputation attracts visitors from around the world. Such centers emerge in every field: Neils Bohr's institute at Copenhagen was a world center for quantum physics in the 1920s, postwar Greenwich Village drew artists inspired by Abstract Expressionism, Motown Records attracted the most creative writers and musicians in soul music in the 1960s. PARC was not at all secretive about its work. Its researchers published widely, and there was a regular flow of traffic between PARC and Stanford's computer science community. And, like every creative institution, that remarkable combination of people and ideas was not permanent. Starting around 1980, PARC researchers began leaving, diffusing into the computer industry as their ideas had before them.

Thousands of non-scientists were given demonstrations of the Alto in the 1970s. No exact figures are available for the decade, but in 1975, about 2,000 visitors saw it. The machine was hardly a secret, though there were different kinds of demonstrations: some just put the Alto through its paces, while others also showed off networking and laser printing. Jim Sachs, who was part of the team that designed the Lisa and Macintosh mice, only saw the computer itself: "The cooler engineers got to look at the laser printer," he later recalled. "I was stuck with looking at this mouse thing." Only a very few visitors got to look under the hood at the actual technology that made the system run. The Apple delegation led by Jobs in December 1979 was one.

In short, PARC's prominence, its large number of visitors, the diffusion of its staff, and the publications it generated, all made it influential in computer science, and-- through more indirect means-- the personal computer and workstation industries in the 1980s. Given this, it's not that surprising that PARC's ideas had an influence on the Macintosh. It almost would have been more surprising if they hadn't.

Innovation v. Commercialization

Finally, the Promethean myth gives pride of place to the brilliant engineers who do the initial work on a technology, and downplays the work of bringing it to market. Whatever happens between the laboratory bench and the store shelf is important the way parcel delivery or soybean farming is important: necessary, but unglamorous and uninteresting. In fact, turning expensive, hard-to-use, precision instruments into cheap, mass-producible, and reliable commercial products requires its own ingenuity and creativity. This marketplace intelligence is different from, but not inferior to, the intelligence of the laboratory; it just gets far less attention by journalists and historians.

In the case of the relationship between the work at PARC and the development of the Macintosh, this blindness leads us to underestimate the originality of Apple's own work, and the differences between the Alto and Macintosh. The story of the Apple mouse in particular shows how much work was involved in moving a technology from the laboratory to the living room, and how different the skills required for that work were from those used in pure research.