Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was a flagship research division of the Xerox Corporation, based in Palo Alto, California, USA, which basically created the modern personal computer paradigm. It was founded in 1970, and spun out as a separate company in 2002.
PARC's founding director, George Pake, was an outstanding physicist in the area of nuclear magnetic resonance. Dr. Pake had been serving as provost of Washington University in 1969 when he was courted by Jack Goldman , Chief Scientist at Xerox. If Jack Goldman was chiefly responsible for Xerox founding, and generously funding, a second research center, then George Pake was chiefly responsible for siting PARC in Palo Alto -- 3,000 miles away from Xerox headquarters.
In retrospect, this turned out to be a good idea, for around 1974, PARC was able to raid the nearby Augmentation Research Center (founded by Douglas Engelbart) for some of its most talented personnel. It also helped that Engelbart's funding from ARPA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force was drying up around the same time.
Xerox PARC was the incubator of many elements of modern computing. Most were included in the first personal computer, the Alto, which included many aspects of the Graphical user interface (GUI), the mouse **, the WYSIWYG text editor, Interpress (a resolution-independent graphical page description language and the precursor to PostScript), Ethernet, and the Smalltalk programming language and integrated development environment. The laser printer was developed at the same time, as an integral part of the overall environment.
Among PARC's distinguished researchers were two Turing Award winners: Butler W. Lampson (1992) and Alan Kay (2003). The ACM Software System Award recognized the Alto system in 1984, Smalltalk in 1987, InterLisp in 1992, and Remote Procedure Call in 1994. Lampson, Kay, Robert W. Taylor , and Charles P. Thacker received the National Academy of Engineering's prestigious Charles Stark Draper Prize in 2004 for their work on the Alto system.
Xerox has been heavily criticized (particularly by business historians) for failing to properly commercialize and profitably exploit PARC's innovations. A favorite example is the GUI, initially developed at PARC for the Alto and then commercialized as the Xerox Star by the Xerox Systems Development Division. It is deemed a failure because it only sold approximately 25,000 units. The first successful commercial GUI product was the Apple Macintosh, developed after a famous visit by Steve Jobs to PARC.
There is no denying the long-term impact of PARC's systems. It has taken two decades for much of their technology to be surpassed. The interfaces and technology that PARC pioneered became standards for much of the computing industry, once their merits were widely known.
It is legend that Xerox management consistently failed to see the potential of many of the PARC inventions. While there is some truth to this, it is also an over-simplification. They certainly understood the value of laser printing, and of advances coming from the non-computer-focused part of PARC. Most critics don't realize that computing research was a relatively small part of PARC. There were many researchers working in areas such as materials science at PARC, including pioneers in LCD and optical disc technologies.
The work at PARC in the years since the early 1980s is often overlooked, but major work since then includes Ubiquitous computing aka Pervasive Computing, and Aspect-oriented programming to name but two.
On January 4, 2002, PARC was incorporated as an independent company.
** Xerox PARC was the first research group to widely adopt the mouse invented by Douglas Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in Menlo Park, California.
- Michael A. Hiltzik, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (HarperCollins, New York, 1999)
- Douglas K. Smith, Robert C. Alexander, Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer (William Morrow, New York, 1988)
Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:39:21