Computer Assisted Design (Sketchpad)

“The cinema camera doesn’t make movies; it allows movies to be made. It’s the creative people who make it real to people.”

Ivan Sutherland

Computer Assisted Design (CAD) uses mathematics to do the geometry and calculations necessary to draw and design. CAD is faster and more accurate than hand drawing.

Sutherland’s “sketchpad” software, part of his doctoral thesis, was the first CAD program. Literally, decades ahead of its time, Sketchpad enabled a user to tell a computer how to draw, place, and move geometric shapes.

Explanation of Sketchpad

As a professor at various University’s Sutherland became a “Johnny Appleseed” of modern computer science. Eventually, he influenced and trained countless computer scientists who went on to make groundbreaking innovations.

A small number of notable Sutherland students include:

  • Alan Kay, inventor of object-oriented programming and the single-person modern computer (Xerox PARC).
  • Jim Clark (Silicon Graphics, Netscape).
  • John Warnock, inventor of PostScript, PDF, and co-inventor of spline fonts (Xerox PARC, Adobe).
  • Edwin Catmull, texture mapping and computer-animation pioneer (Pixar).
  • Bob Sproull, virtual reality.
  • Gordon Romney, 3D rendering.
  • Frank Crow, antialiasing.

No computer or business historian would argue that Sutherland is not one of, if not the most important, seminal scientists responsible for the modern computer.      

Eventually, in 1964, Sutherland stepped away from academia and replaced J.C.R. Licklider as head of DARPA, during the time that DARPA invented the internet.

Demonstration of Sketchpad

Portable Computer

Portable computers are more convenient than stationary computers. They increase productivity for people who travel, allow office workers to bring work home, and enable telecommuting.


Portable computers were developed at (where else), Xerox PARC. The Xerox NoteTaker, released in 1978, was the first portable computer. Staying true to Xerox tradition, only about ten were built and the project abandoned.

In April 2981, Adam Osborne, a frequent visitor to the Homebrew Computer Club released the first production portable computer, the Osborne I. The Homebrew Computer is where Wozniak and Jobs dreamt up the Apple. The Osborne was clunky but functional, with a 5-inch screen, 64Kb memory, two floppy disk drives, and a full-size keyboard. It weighed 10.7kg (23.5 pounds), cost $1,795 (about $5,000 in 2019), and used the then-popular CP/M operating system.

Despite far less power and memory than what today is a throwaway flip-phone, the Osborne sold well, moving 125,000 units in 1982.

Storm clouds were on the horizon when IBM released its first portable computer, the IBM-PC, on August 12, 1981.

Osborne announced plans to build a portable PC. The promised new computer decimated sales of the prior unit. Startup Compaq, founded by three former Texas Instrument executives, released the first IBM-PC compatible driving Osborne into bankruptcy.


Founded in 1982, Compaq captured the market with the first IBM-compatible mass-market portable computer, released in 1983, the Compaq Plus Portable. It featured a nine-inch screen, 128Kb RAM, shock-proof disk drives, and the newly released MS-DOS operating system. The price was $4,995 (about $12,850 in 2019). Apparently, buyers of portable computers were not especially price sensitive.

Compaq thrived selling high-end PC’s until they started to struggle, in 1998. In response, they purchased Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC). That made no difference and the “high-end” computer maker continued to stumble in a market where PC’s were commoditized. In 2002, HP acquired Compaq for $25 billion in 2002, a merger often cited as one of the worst in history.

Alta Vista

While focused on machines and mergers, Compaq/DEC executives ignored an offer from two Stanford students to sell groundbreaking search technology to Compaq/DEC wholly-owned search engine Alta Vista for $1 million. Yahoo also turned the students down, forcing them to forge ahead and build their own business. In 2019 that business, Google, is worth approximately $830 billion.

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”

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.

Object-Oriented Programming

Object oriented programming is the first of countless Xerox PARC inventions.

Vastly simplifying, there are two ways to program a computer. In procedural programming, each thing the computer does is listed. Conditional statements tell the computer which path to follow.

Comparatively, in object-oriented programming, objects mimic real life. Programmers then act on these objects.

For example, a tree object might have three sub-objects, an oak, a maple, and cherry tree. All three tree types would have a different look when drawn. Each could be chopped down and they’d all be affected by wind. Similarly, if a car drove into a mature tree the car would suffer. However, if a car drove into an immature sapling, then the tree would suffer. There is no need to reprogram the computer for each type of tree.

Many Xerox PARC inventions were the, um, “inspiration” for Steve Jobs and Apple to build the Macintosh. But Jobs did not take Smalltalk and object-oriented programming, something he later regretted.

The first object-oriented programming language developed at Xerox PARC is Smalltalk. Today, C++, Java, C#, and even Javascript are more common. However, they are all object-oriented.