Graphic User Interface

Computers “must be learnable in private… Kindness should be an integral part.”

Alan Kay

The Graphic User Interface (GUI) consists of windows, folders, icons, mice, etc… It enables ordinary people to use computers. Xerox PARC’s GUI vastly simplified computer use and increased productivity by making computers easy and fun to use.

Like the internet itself, it’s difficult to attach a single date on the elements of the Graphical User Interface (GUI).


Engelbart demonstrated many elements of the GUI at the Mother of All Demos. However, Engelbart believed computers should be large and shared. Looking towards the burgeoning mini-computer market, pioneered by Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), several computer scientists disagreed. Significantly, they thought computers should be personalized, easy-to-use, and fun.

Xerox had one innovation lab, in Rochester near headquarters, focused on copy machines. However, they wanted something far away both figuratively and literally. A lab that could peer into the paper of the future. Subsequently, with a big budget and a sprawling mandate, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) was created in 1970.

Xerox PARC hired some of the top researchers at the forefront of their field. No sooner did Xerox fund and set-up their experimental lab than several Engelbart researchers, already interested in this field, joined.

Besides the Engelbart staffers, computer scientist Bob Taylor joined Xerox to flesh out the work. Previously, Taylor saw Engelbart’s demo and believed it to be the future of computing. Taylor was a colleague to computer visionary Ivan Sutherland. Another Sutherland student, Alan Kay, also a proponent of an easy-to-use personal computer, joined Xerox PARC.

The GUI is Born

Larry Tesler and Tim Mott wrote the first modern word processor, implementing Engelbart’s copy-and-paste but also adding fonts, what-you-see-is-what-you-get typing, and stateless interaction. The latter innovation markedly simplified typing. Significantly, users need not first tell the computer what you’re trying to do.

Borrowing from SRI’s and Engelbart, and building on Bravo (see above), Tesler wrote a modeless word processor, the Gypsy Word Processor. It implemented a more robust version of copy and paste/cut that looks like what we use today. Subsequently, Tesler left Xerox for Apple in 1980. Dan Ingalls created bit blit, the technology enabling on-screen graphics that has little changed to modern times. Likewise, he also invented pop-up menus. David Smith was an engineer at SRI with Douglas Engelbart. Eventually, at Xerox PARC, he invented user interface icons.

Eventually, Xerox rolled these innovations into the Alto personal computer but never entirely commercialized the Alto. In late 1979, Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC and took the innovations, and several of the people, back to Apple. Subsequently, they commercialized the work first in the Lisa computer then, eventually, the Macintosh.

Undeniably, Xerox PARC is arguably responsible for more innovations in software than any other single firm in history. However, due to gross incompetence at the managerial level, Xerox made virtually no money.

Xerox Alto Advertisement, 1972
Larry Tesler explains Steve Jobs visit,
“Everything cool going on at Xerox PARC”

Digital Camera

In 1975, Kodak employee Steven Sasson invented and patented the digital camera in 1975.

Sasson’s camera used a CCD to capture 100×100 pixels and stored those on a cassette tape. He chose to store 30 photos per cassette due not to technical limitations but because Kodak sold film in 24 and 36 exposure rolls. Kodak executives repeated asked Sasson how long until the technology matured, a sign of their nervousness about the technology.

Kodak spent little time developing the immature technology and decided to focus instead on their as-is film and chemical business. No sooner did his camera function than Kodak shoved it in a box, likely hoping to never see it again.

Subsequently, in 1997, Kodak reached its peak valuation of about $30 billion ($45 billion adjusted to 2016).

Fifteen years later, in February 2012, the Rochester firm filed for bankruptcy.

Eventually, in January 2013, the bankruptcy court approved a plan allowing Kodak to emerge from bankruptcy. The court sold its most valuable asset, the core digital photo patents, for $525 million.

Undoubtedly, Kodak could have pioneered the smartphone business. Facebook could and probably should have been Kodakbook. However, managers were unwilling to look beyond their core as-is traditional photography customers.

Electronic Paper

Electronic paper is an ultra-low-power display that requires electricity only to change. ePaper is useful for eBook readers, grocery store price tags, and other displays that need not rapidly change and cannot be plugged in.

Electronic paper is a lesser-known Xerox PARC invention. Helping cement their reputation as the Worst Managers of All Time, Xerox never realized any benefit.

ePaper does not require electricity to power the screen unless it is changing. Consequently, it is optimal for displaying information like written text or prices.

In 2002, aware of the other innovations they failed to commercialize, Xerox spun off ePaper to a wholly-owned subsidiary, Gyricon LLC. However, the business down in 2005 due to undercapitalization. Subsequently, Amazon launched the Kindle two years later, in 2007 with technology by Gyricon competitor E Ink. Xerox patents had presumably expired by then.

Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)

MEMS are literally microscopic-machines. The best-known MEMS are the accelerometers that have become ubiquitous in smartphones, allowing precise tracking of movement on the X, Y, and Z-axis. Significantly, MEMS are the reason your phone can sense movement. Additionally, other MEMS devices include miniature microphones, projectors, cameras, and countless others.

MEMS were first proposed in 1959 via a paper by physicist Richard Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He theorized about the growth in micro and nanotechnology.

In 1964, Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse introduced the first working MEMS device, a tiny transistor. Subsequently, during the 1960s and 1970s work continued, with machines etched into silicon working as pressure sensors. Eventually, these evolved into MEMS-based blood pressure monitoring devices.

In 1979 HP released a MEMS controlled inkjet nozzle to create the inkjet printer.

The first crude MEMS accelerometer dates to 1982. Airbags were important because they must fire when needed, never fire when not needed, and react almost instantly.

By 1993 Analog Devices produced the first real 3D MEMS accelerometer. At $5 it cost far less and functioned far better than other solutions. Countless airbag deployments relied on this inexpensive yet accurate accelerometer. Eventually, Nintendo adopted it for use to track motion in the Wii gaming system.

MEMS technology continues to develop with scientists working on microscopic insulin pumps, glucometers, DNA arrays, and other lab-on-a-chip applications.

Personal Computer, Xerox Alto (the “interim Dynabook”)

Dynabook was at the heart of Xerox PARC. Eventually realized as the Xerox Alto, it is essentially the first personal computer. Easy-to-use with a graphical interface, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISYG) programs, icons, the mouse, networking. Everything we take for granted today started as the Dynabook/Alto.


The Dynabook dates to Kay’s doctoral thesis and the first interview with Xerox. It is the underlying principle behind much of the work at Xerox PARC.

Kay envisioned a computer for just one person. His theoretical computer notebook would cost less than $500 “so that we could give it away in schools.” Compactness was important so “a kid could take it wherever he goes to hide.” Programming should be easy: “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” “A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’ device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) to the home.”

Xerox refused to fund the Dynabook, it was an inappropriate project since Xerox PARC was for offices, not children. Subsequently, Kay ignored them, sneaked away and, with the help of Thacker and Lampson, built what became the Alto. Kay referred to the Alto as “the interim Dynabook.”

Xerox: Computers Won’t Make Money

When finished, in 1973, Kay released it with a graphic of Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street, holding the letter C. Xerox built about 2,000 Alto’s for company use but never fully commercialized the computer. A Xerox executive told Taylor “the computer will never be as important to society as the copier.” The Dynabook, the personal computer, did not add shareholder value.

As of mid-2019, Xerox is worth $6.5 billion. Microsoft is worth $1.01 trillion. Apple is worth $874 billion.

Of course, Steve Jobs eventually visited Xerox PARC and rolled many ideas of the Alto into an Apple computer first called the Lisa and, later, the Macintosh. Soon after, Microsoft released Windows that looks suspiciously similar.

Laser Printer

Laser printing is the only Xerox research project to generate significant revenue and profit for the company. However, it predates PARC. Subsequently, most Xerox laser printing revenue came from licensing the technology to other firms. Despite their success in the enterprise market and strong brand Xerox never built a widely used Xerox-brand laser printer.


In 1967, Xerox employee Gary Starkweather pondered generating an image rather than copying one from reflected light, the method used in traditional xerography. His idea involved using lasers to create the light on a drum that would subsequently attract toner, similar to a photocopy.

Not surprisingly, given their management skills, Xerox executives hated the idea. Too expensive, too impractical, and who would ever need to create a copy using a laser. Thereupon, they thought up every reason to kill the project, and – demonstrating their only creative abilities – generated a few more.

Starkweather smartly stuck by the idea. A move from the staid Xerox Webster Research Center, in Rochester, to the newly formed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox PARC rescued him and his idea.

Xerox Invents Laser Printing

Eventually, his invention came to fruition. The first version was named Scanned Laser Output Terminal, or SLOT. Next came the Ethernet, Alto, Research character generator, Scanned laser output terminal or EARS. Somebody wisely stopped him from trying for a third name and branded it the Xerox 9700.

Despite inventing it, in 1976 IBM beat Xerox to the market with a high-speed industrial printer, the IBM 3800. However, Xerox brought the 9700 to market the next year, in 1977.

Xerox Blows It

Subsequently, Starkweather attempted to pivot to personal laser printers but was stymied, this time successfully, by Xerox management. He argued toner and paper would be more profitable than machines, similar to Gillette’s disposable razor and razor blade approach. Nonsense, argued Xerox executives; Xerox makes money from selling machines, not supplies. Hewitt Packard eventually introduced the first personal laser printer and owned the market.

In 1987, Starkweather quit Xerox to join Apple for a decade and later worked at Microsoft.

Charge-Coupled Device (CCD)


William Boyle
George Smith

“We are the ones who started this profusion of little cameras all over the world.”

William Boyle

Charged Coupled Devices (CCD’s) are a special type of chip that reacts to light. They are inexpensive and especially useful in imagining, enabling digital photography and video.

William Boyle and George Smith worked for Bell Labs. Their research on “Charge Bubble Devices” advanced slowly. Eventually, they were told in a week they’d be reassigned to the more promising memory division.

In 1969, faced with losing their funding and lab, the two brainstormed. In one hour, they outlined the idea which became the CCD, the sensor driving all early digital video and photography. Forty years later their one-hour invention won them the 2009 Nobel Prize.

The device itself is made up of “charge bubbles” — a series of metal-oxide semiconducting capacitors (MOS). Light changes the photons to electrons that are then flushed to a capacitor. Boyd and Smith figured out how to quickly measure each row of MOS light to create still and moving pictures.

MOS, like most imaging, only captures black and white. However, by filtering for red, green, and blue then combining them electronically, the technology produces color images. Cameras typically then combined and enhance the images into smaller and more manageable files, typically a JPEG.

Boyle and Smith’s CCD soon became ubiquitous, famously used to capture and send images from the moon back to earth where other equipment would have been too heavy and bulky.

Other Bell Labs researchers are critical, arguing that Boyle and Smith stumbled upon CCD’s accidentally and did not think up or use the technology for imaging. “They wouldn’t know an imaging device if it stared them in the face,” said Eugene Gordon who, along with Michael Tompsett, applied CCD’s to imaging.

“I can clearly remember the day that George and I developed the concept for the CCD,” answers Boyle. “It’s pretty firm in my mind. I’ve documentation that disproves most of what they’re saying, and the rest of what they’re saying is not at all logical.”. Smith simply called them “liars.”

CCD chips made for early video equipment and digital cameras. However, CMOS chips eventually overtook CCD chips for most imaging solutions. The advantage of CMOS is it reads directly from the chip, rather than reading line by line, making it faster and ultimately less expensive.

Optical Disk (CD/DVD)

“If it was any good, IBM would have already invented it.”

James Russell

CD’s and DVD’s increase convenience from analog tapes for music and video. Users may instantly jump to songs or parts of a video. Unlike tapes, CD’s and DVD’s never wear out reducing replacement media cost.

David Paul Gregg

In 1961, Gregg claims to have invented and patented the core technology behind the CD and DVD, initially used for a videodisk. He was working for a Western Electric division but left to patent the technology on his own. Gregg formed Gauss Electrophysics and licensed the technology to the Music Corporation of America (MCA), the predecessor of Vivendi Universal and NBC Universal.

In 1976, MCA released the videodisk system as a consumer product: it was a flop. IBM recognized the potential of the disk for a storage device and partnered with Gauss, which changed its name to Discovision Associates (DVA).

In 1989, Pioneer bought DVA. In 1998, DVA apparently prevailed in a patent dispute, finding that CD’s infringed on a DVA patent. Gregg then disappeared and it is unclear what happened to him or his patents. Pioneer, Sony, and 3M all licensed DVA patents at one time or another.

James Russell

Russell also claims to have invented and patented core CD technology at Battelle, the same incubator that helped with the photocopy machine. Battelle licensed the technology to a venture capitalist for little money.

Those patents were acquired by a Canadian company, Optical Recording, that hired Russell for his expertise. Optical sued Sony, Phillips, and various music publishers, but fired Russell before the cases settled. Russell earned nothing but fame from his innovation, the CD and DVD.

“I didn’t really expect I was going to make a lot of money, because I recognized early on it was going to take a big company to put this all together and get it out on the market, because it was a revolutionary thing.”

James Russell

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)

Liquid-Crystal Displays (LCD’s) enable flat-screens with relatively low-power usage.

In 1888, Friedrich Reinitzer discovered liquid crystals in Germany. However, there was no use and the technology lay dormant for about 80 years.

In 1968, RCA’s George Hailmeir presented the first working LCD display. However, it only worked at 80°C (176°F) leaving it impractical for anything except Bikram Yoga. Accordingly, even with this constraint, a flat television that hangs on a wall became a real possibility.

By the mid 1970s, calculator and clocks featured early LCD displays that operated at room temperature. Japan displayed the first LCD television a decade later, in 1984. To and through the 1990s the displays gain, especially in use as high-resolution computer monitors featuring In-Plane Switching (IPS) for wide viewing angles. The enormous televisions came next, ever-larger flat-screens at ever-lower prices.

No sooner did prices fall than every person who could possibly want a screen owned one. LCD screens hung on walls and sat in pockets, powering everything from phones to enormous displays.

Eventually, Heilmeier left to lead DARPA then, later, worked as a Vice President of Texas Instruments. He was briefly CEO of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).

Plasma Panel


Donald Bitzer
Gene Slottow
Robert Wilson

Plasma panels form fonts, images, and other patterns using plasma, rather than tubes. The panels are flat, cool, and use less power than CRT tubes.

Bitzer developed the plasma panel as the monitor for his teaching computer, PLATO.

PLATO is a lesser-known fountain of innovation. Along with Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, GE, and Kodak, PLATO created an enormous number of modern technologies. Networked computers, text messaging, online community, and touch-screens all came from PLATO besides plasma panels.

The system was originally developed for Computer Based Training (CBT) by Donald Bitzer and others at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. PLATO was used for training, much like the web also has an enormous amount of training material. But, much like the web, the system did much more than train people. PLATO is arguably the forerunner of the World Wide Web.

Unlike CRT screens, the panels are flat which helped enable PLATO’s infrared touch-screen technology. PLATO plasma panels were orange with 512×512 single-color pixels, 262,144 total. In contrast, an iPhone XR has 1792×828 red, green, and blue pixels, 4,451,328 total.

Figure 7
Early plasma panel experiment

The panels worked by creating a matrix of wires. When electrical impulses from the X and Y sides of the panel had an intersecting pulse, the plasma glowed orange. Using these early pixels created fonts and even primitive graphics.

Image result for plato display
PLATO panel displaying EMPIRE game

Control Data Corporation, IBM, and TDK Electronics all licensed plasma panel technology.

CRT technology cost less and responded faster than plasma panels. It was decades before plasma panels became less expensive and morphed into a popular consumer electronic in the form of television. Starting in 2005, plasma panels replaced projection televisions and CRT’s as large televisions. Hanging on walls everywhere, the panels dropped quickly in price. They grew in popularity because the background was pure black, unlike other flat panels. However, they tended to “burn-in” — leaving images behind — and eventually dropped in popularity.

Eventually, LCD, LED, and finally OLED technology replaced plasma panels.