In the bestselling techno histories of The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder and Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik, Inventing the Future (August 10; 404 pages) invites you on a revolutionary journey of intellectual creation. Based on the true story of the Xerox Star, Inventing the Future was penned by Albert Cory*, one of the engineers who was in charge of bringing to life the computer that changed everything.
Imagine a time before everyone stared at a screen—a humankind before fonts, icons, mice, laptops, laser printers, and smartphones. A world before Apple and Microsoft. But in the 1970’s and ‘80s in El Segundo and Palo Alto, a group of visionary young Xerox engineers dubbed PARC were secretly building the modern personal computer. Who were they? And why did Xerox fail to grasp their groundbreaking inventions and choose only to sell copiers and printers?
Inventing the Future offers a glimpse at the ideas, the inventions, and the individuals that propelled the Xerox Star to the frontier of technological innovation.
It was finally happening. After almost five years of labor by 250-plus people, the Office of the Future was here. Despite the prayers for them, 64K memory chips had not appeared. Michael had gotten corporate approval to increase the manufacturing cost with an extra 64K words of memory. Star now had 256K words, or 512K bytes of main memory. The performance was still poor, but at least it was tolerable now.
Star had been announced and demoed in New York already, and this week was the National Computer Conference in Chicago, starting Monday, May 4, 1981 and lasting until Thursday. Dan had volunteered to man the Xerox booth for all four days. He flew out to Chicago on the Sunday morning before it started, but with the time change, it was past dinner when he finally arrived at McCormick Place.
Dan read the Sunday Chicago Tribune.
In Business, Compushop was offering an Apple II starter system for $1,595. But then buried deep inside the section, Dan found what he was looking for, a story about the Star. It began:
Xerox terminal has symbols, not codes
Managers and professional workers haven’t been the best customers for automated office equipment like computer terminals.
Maybe it’s because they are more accustomed to pointing and selecting material rather than typing out explicit commands.
Maybe it’s because they can’t type.
The article quoted a Xerox marketing executive, who explained that the Star was aimed at “managers or professionals who produce documents, reports, or charts.” It explained how the mouse worked. The executive went on to explain that the Star system cost $15,595, but “technological advances will allow price reductions in the future.” Star would be demonstrated at the National Computer Conference at McCormick Place this week.
Dan, Janet, Martin, Henry, and the rest of the Xeroids were continuously busy, explaining the Star to curious attendees. Visitors could try a mouse, and lots of them did—almost no one had ever used a mouse before. A technical staffer had brought a box full of spare mice and
swapped in a new one every hour since the accumulated dirt and finger oil from all the guests made the rubber balls in the mice sticky.
As each hour approached, people began gathering around the monitors to see the demos. By noon, they were waiting 10 minutes before the hour. Michael stationed himself near the left side monitor, where he kept busy talking to reporters, executives, and random attendees. Michael watched the crowd closely, and he noticed that Steve Jobs, one of the Apple founders, came every hour, surrounded by other guys Michael didn’t know. He knew that Jobs had visited PARC the year before last for a demo of the Alto and Smalltalk, but he hadn’t seen Star before. He had supposedly asked, “Why isn’t Xerox doing anything with this?” Now, he found out they were
Thank you, Albert Cory and R&R Book Tours
About the Author
Albert Cory is a pen name for Bob Purvy, a retired software engineer who worked on the Xerox Star. In his career he also worked at Burroughs, 3Com, Oracle, Packeteer, and Google. All characters are fictional and are composites of the scientists, engineers, and executives who lived the story, with the exception of the auto-biographical character, Dan Markunas. The other two main characters, Janet Saunders and Grant Avery, are completely fictional, and are not in any way representative of the real people who had their jobs (note: the author makes clear which events are real and which are composites in the Endnotes).
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