Cover image for Dealers of lightning : Xerox PARC and the dawn of the computer age
Title:
Dealers of lightning : Xerox PARC and the dawn of the computer age
Author:
Hiltzik, Michael A.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperBusiness, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
xxviii, 448 pages ; 25 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780887308918
Format :
Book

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Library
Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Status
Audubon Library QA76.27 .H55 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
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Summary

Summary

Dealers of Lightning is the riveting story of the legendary Xerox PARC--a collection of eccentric young inventors brought together by Xerox Corporation at a facility in Palo Alto, California, during the mind-blowing intellectual ferment of the seventies and eighties. Here for the first time Michael Hiltzik, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, reveals in piercing detail the true story of the extraordinary group that aimed to bring about a technological dawn that would change the world--and succeeded.

Based on extensive interviews with the scientists, engineers, administrators, and corporate executives who lived the story, Dealers of Lightning takes the read on a journey from PARC's beginnings in a dusty, abandoned building at the edge of the Stanford University campus to its triumph as a hothouse of ideas that spawned not only the first personal computer, but the windows-style graphical user interface, the laser printer, much of the indispensable technology of the Internet, and a great deal more. It shows how and why Xerox, despite its willingness to grant PARC unlimited funding and the responsibility for developing breakthroughs to keep the corporation on the cutting edge of office technology, remained forever unable to grasp (and, consequently, exploit) the innovations that PARC delivered--and it details the increasing frustration of the original PARC scientists, many of whom would go on to build their fortunes upon the very ideas Xerox so rashly discarded.

More than just a riveting historical narrative, Dealers of Lightning brings to life an unforgettable cast of characters. Among them:

Bob Taylor--the preacher's son from rural Texas who would be considered a prophet by some and a cantankerous egomaniac by others, whose fearless (and feared) leadership of a team of computer renegades made them the heroes of the embryonic Silicon Valley; Jack Goldman--the Xerox chief scientist who convinced the stolid corporation to stake tens of millions of dollars on PARC while warning that the investment might not pay off for years--if it paid off at all; Alan Kay--PARC's creative and philosophical soul, who suffered years of ridicule for envisioning a computer that could be tucked under the arm yet would contain the power to store books, symphonies, letters, poems, and drawings--until he arrived at Palo Alto and met the people who would build it; and Steve Jobs--who, aided by Xerox's indifference to PARC's most momentous inventions, staged a daring raid to obtain the technology that would end up at the heart of the Macintosh: the machine that for a time helped Apple dominate an explosive new market.

Dealers of Lightning is an unprecedented look at the ideas, the inventions, and the individuals that propelled Xerox PARC to the frontier of technohistory--and the corporate machinations that almost prevented it from achieving greatness.


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) is a fable of failure in business lore, because owner Xerox failed to capitalize on its inventions. But consumers, if not Xerox stockholders, benefit from such things of PARC provenance as the laser printer, word processing, windows, and icons. The business side has been lamented by Xerox's CEO (David Kearns in Prophets in the Dark, 1992); here, journalist Hiltzik synthesizes a "hallway-level view" of PARC's cybernetic fecundity in the 1970s. The dominant figure is Robert Taylor, who helped create ARPANET, the military-planted seed of the Internet. Tapped for PARC, he hired the best couple dozen computer science talents available, but Ph.D. brain power is only part of PARC's story. Underscoring that computer technology in 1970 was at a "historic inflection point," Hiltzik recounts how the researchers' ideas synergized into the first personal computer. Legend holds that Steven Jobs lifted PARC ideas for Apple's PC; and Hiltzik integrates PARC's oral history to support the truth of this and other tales of technology aborning. A lively addition to computer history. --Gilbert Taylor


Publisher's Weekly Review

Anyone who uses a personal computer is familiar with technologies pioneered by Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which started operation in 1970. The received wisdom is that Xerox muffed the chance to dominate the personal computer era by allowing revolutionary technologies developed at PARC to be snatched up by strangers and rivals (most famously, Apple, which took the mouse and the graphical user interface from PARC). L.A. Times reporter Hiltzik argues that the received wisdom is wrong. He expertly situates the story of which products actually made it to market for Xerox (e.g., the laser printer) and which technologies Xerox leaked away (WYSIWYG word processing, hypertext, Ethernet and TCP/IP, to name a few) in a broader analysis of the role of basic science research in business. He praises Xerox execs for understanding the difference between basic research and product development and for exempting PARC from the stultifying effect of having to do the latter. Among the many facts of life on the cutting edge that Hiltzik makes abundantly clear is that very bad decisions are often made for very good business reasons. While granting that Xerox could certainly have better exploited the new technologies issuing from PARC, he emphasizes that the company brought together "a group of superlatively creative minds at the very moment when they could exert maximal influence on a burgeoning technology, and financed their work with unexampled generosity." This is a top-notch business page-turner. Unburdened by any gee-whiz jaw-dropping, yet fully appreciative of the power of creative minds, it is informed by a sure understanding of the complex relationship between business and technology. Major ad/promo. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

The Impresario The photograph shows a handsome man in a checked sport shirt, his boyish face half-obscured by a cloud of pipe smoke. Robert W. Taylor looks amused and slightly out of date, his sandy hair longer than one might wear it today but unfashionably short for the distant time period when the picture was taken by the famous photographer of a trendy magazine. His gaze is fixed on something beyond the camera as though contemplating the future, which would befit the man who brought together perhaps the greatest collection of computer engineering talent ever to work in one place. On a sunny afternoon in July 1996 the same photograph looked down at a gathering of that same talent in the open-air restaurant of a Northern California winery. There were some changes from when it was first shot, however. This time the picture was blown up bigger than fife, and the people celebrating under its amused gaze had aged a quarter-century They were there to mark the retirement of Bob Taylor, the unlikely impresario of computer science at Xerox PARC. Among the guests were several of his intellectual mentors, including a few who ranked as genuine Grand Old Men of a young and still-fluid discipline. This group included Wes Clark, an irascible genius of hardware design who started his career when even the smallest computers had to be operated from within their cavernous entrails; and seated not far away, the flinty Douglas C. Engelbart, the uncompromising prophet of multimedia interactivity whose principles of graphical user interfaces and mouse-click navigation were disdained in his own time but have become ubiquitous in ours. Most of the company, however, consisted of Bob Taylor's chosen people. They were unabashed admirers whose careers he had launched by inviting them to sit beneath his commodious wing. Geniuses, prodigies, owners of doctorates from the leading halls of learning, they lived in the thrall of this psychologist from The University of Texas who stammered frightfully when trying to communicate an abstruse technical point, yet still managed to impart a vision of computing that reigns today on millions of desktops. Many moved on to more splendid achievements and some to astounding wealth. But none ever forgot how profoundly their professional lives were changed when Bob Taylor fixed them with his discerning eye and invited them to enlist in his tiny company of believers. "As a leader of engineers and scientists he had no equal," said Chuck Thacker, who worked beside him longer than almost anyone else. "If you're looking for the magic, it was him." Thacker served as the afternoon's master of ceremonies. Under his deft supervision the familiar old Bob Taylor stories got dusted off to be howled over anew. Bob arranging for Dr Pepper, the Texas state drink, to be imported into PARC "by the pallet load and stored in a special locked vault." Bob bombing through the streets of Washington in his Corvette Stingray as though saddled on a wild stallion. Or rigging his Alto to beep out "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" whenever he received an e-mail message on PARC's unique internal network. Taylor listened to it all in great good humor from the table of honor, way in the back, dressed in a short-sleeved striped shirt and resplendent cherry-red slacks. But then, nothing ever pleased him more than functioning as the lodestar of the proceedings while pretending to be nothing but an unassuming bystander. Charles Simonyi, who was a naive young Hungarian immigrant without a green card when Taylor brought him to PARC in 1972, flew down from Seattle in his own Learjet, one of the perquisites that accrue to a man who moved from PARC to become employee number forty of a small company named Microsoft. "I remember Bob preparing me to deal with the three most powerful forces of the twentieth century," he said. "One of these was personal distributed computing. The second was the Internet. And the third very powerful force is football." Appreciative laughter rippled across the floor. Everyone present understood football as an emblem of the darker currents driving Bob Taylor's personality and career. They knew that as a competitor he was an absolutely ruthless creature and that to protect and glorify the work of his group he would blindly trample anyone in the way like a fullback scenting the goal line-be they rivals, superiors, or members of his own circle judged to have fallen prey to heretical thoughts. Over the years these habits left a trail of roasted relationships. Most of the guests at the retirement lunch were polite enough not to remark openly that the company giving Taylor the gold watch was Digital Equipment Corporation, not Xerox. Or that among the party's conspicuous absentees were George Pake, who had hired him to establish and oversee the computer science laboratory at PARC, and Pake's successor, Bill Spencer, who evicted Taylor from PARC more than a decade later. The common knowledge was that for every guest who owed a career to the guest of honor there existed not a few individuals who had felt the sting of Taylor's rivalry and damned him as one of the most arrogant, elitist, and unprincipled persons on the planet. The allusions to this discomfiting truth were mostly indirect. At his touch football games, it was recalled, he was always the quarterback. The former PARC engineer Dick Shoup recalled how at softball Taylor would invariably wave A the other infielders off a pop-up. One day Shoup complained, "Bob, the other people came to play, tool"... (Continues...) Excerpted from Dealers of Lightning by Michael A. Hiltzik Copyright © 2003 by Michael A. Hiltzik Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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