Wednesday, May 10, 2017

My time at PARC — 1979-1984

In early 1979, after my first semester of teaching at Occidental, I decided I could use a second part-time job. At the USC Placement Center, I saw one at Xerox that sounded promising.

During my interview, I was asked to write a FORTRAN program for Newton-Raphson root finding. They liked my work, noting that I had included checks for failure to converge.

I was to write computer programs in support of two physicists doing research on magnetic recording heads. Two years later, this work resulted in my only technical publication, when they listed me as a co-author.

This lab of 30 people was part of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, PARC. I knew about corporate research labs in general, such as Bell Labs and IBM Research, but I had never heard of PARC. This Southern California PARC outpost was a by-product of Xerox's 1969 purchase of Scientific Data Systems.

Shortly after I began, someone showed me a small isolated room with an unused Alto. When they booted it up, my jaw dropped. I had never seen anything like this graphical user interface (GUI): bit-mapped screen, multiple windows, mouse, WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get") text editing and more. Few people had. This was before Apple's Steve Jobs first saw one at PARC. I thought, "Where has Xerox been hiding all this?!" It's hard to convey to anyone today how revolutionary all that was.

This inspired me to look more deeply into PARC. I sat down with the PARC Directory, and saw several names I recognized from publications, including Alan Kay and Danny Bobrow. Even a friend from Rice, Tom Malone. I knew he was in grad school at Stanford, but didn't know he was sometimes at PARC. I was very eager to visit PARC in Palo Alto.

Half of the Los Angeles PARC lab was headed by H.M. "Andy" Anderson. Fortunately for me, he was happy to help me out. First, he sent me on a one-day get-acquainted PARC visit in December 1979, along with Dan Bloomberg, one of the physicists I was working under. That was fun, even though neither I nor the PARC folks I had appointments with knew what the heck I was doing there. The best connection I made was with Dan Ingalls of the the Smalltalk group. (Alan Kay, head of the group, was too busy to see me.) Because I knew a bit of Simula, I knew about object-oriented programming.

Later, and still hard to believe, Andy arranged for me to spend half of every summer for the next four years at PARC, with no responsibilities! I had to pay for transportation, room and board, but Andy continued to pay my salary. It was a dream come true.

The Smalltalk group agreed to host me. I had my own Alto. I learned Smalltalk, of course, (and some Mesa and Modula-2), read tons of great technical papers, attended talks by giants of computer science both from PARC and elsewhere, got my first ARPANET address, used the Ethernet and laser printers all the time, and much more. It was an amazing post-graduate computer science education. Even as a novice CS teacher at a liberal arts college, I knew cutting-edge CS from PARC that only became widely known many years later.

I hoarded PARC technical reports. I still have several boxes of PARC documents, almost everything listed in the Computer History Museum's Alto archive, including my Alto User's Handbook, several PARC Annual Reports and A Decade of Research - Xerox PARC 1970-1980, which includes the paper I co-authored. I even have a giant 14-inch 2.5 MB (!) magnetic disk platter from an Alto. I always showed it to my students when talking about computer history. In the close-up, you can see this disk suffered a head crash, which is why I was able to keep it:

Besides PARC, I enjoyed many other activities in the area. I hung around Stanford a lot, especially the libraries. I lived in a rented room in old Palo Alto and bicycled through Stanford to PARC every day. I also went to gay bars and met gay folks at Stanford and at PARC, particularly Peter Deutsch. I was in Palo Alto for the initial organizing meeting of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). I was a founding member and started the L.A. chapter. I was a local and national officer of CPSR in later years.

My summers at PARC only stopped when Xerox closed its L.A. PARC lab in the mid-1980s. Dan Bloomberg moved to Palo Alto to continue to work at PARC. I worked at another part of Xerox in El Segundo until 1991. CPSR work brought me to Palo Alto regularly for many years, and I often stopped by PARC, usually officially hosted by Dan. (Dan now works at Google. I had lunch with him there in 2010, when I was visiting a former Oxy student of mine who's now at Google.)

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