Draper Prize Awarded to Pioneers of the Networked PC

Former Xerox PARC team to share US $500 000

25 February 2004--Four computer engineers have been awarded this year’s Charles Stark Draper Prize--often referred to as engineering’s Nobel Prize--for the development of the first practical networked personal computers. Alan C. Kay, Butler W. Lampson, Robert W. Taylor, and Charles P. Thacker will share the US $500 000 award, which was presented last night by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

"These four prize recipients were the indispensable core of an amazing group of engineering minds that redefined the nature and purpose of computing," said the Academy’s President William A. Wulf.

Kay, Lampson, Taylor, and Thacker worked together in the 1970s and 1980s at Xerox Corp.’s groundbreaking Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. There they created the Alto, a personal computer system that introduced such features as the networking technology Ethernet, window-based graphical user interface, programming environments, the laser printer, and file, printing, and e-mail servers.

The development of the Alto was the result of a fruitful combination of a handful of research initiatives that PARC engineers and scientists pursued with a great deal of freedom--perhaps guided only by the institution’s unifying vision: to develop "the architecture of information." In a chapter he contributed to A History of Personal Workstations (Addison-Wesley, 1988) Lampson wrote: "This Alto system did not have a detailed plan, but it was built in pursuit of a clear goal: to make computers better tools for people to think and communicate."

Inspired by their colleagues, computer luminaries like Internet visionary J.C.R. Licklider and mouse inventor Douglas C. Engelbart, PARC researchers wanted to transform computers from expensive, refrigerator-sized calculating machines into cheaper, personal workstations that could communicate through a vast network and share resources such as printers and file servers.

"One of the blood oaths that was taken by the original founders was that we would never do a system that wasn’t engineered for 100 users," Kay told IEEE Spectrum in a 1985 article. [See "Inside the PARC: the Information Architects" by T. S. Perry and P. Wallich, published in Spectrum in October 1985]

Among PARC’s staff were some of the top engineers in the United States, who gladly embraced Silicon Valley’s working lifestyle, parking their bicycles in the hallways and coming to work at all hours of the day and night. Besides the environment, the multitude of interests and personalities of PARC researchers contributed to the creative success of projects like the Alto.

As colleagues and other observers now describe them, Taylor was the leader, manager, and recruiter, hiring many of PARC’s engineers; Kay was the visionary, the philosopher; Lampson was the software expert, the operating system whiz; and Thacker was the hardware man, the engineer’s engineer.

"Alan Kay is the father of the PC, while Butler, Bob, and Chuck are the mothers who built it," said Ethernet inventor Robert M. Metcalfe, who worked with them at PARC and later went on to found 3Com Corp. [See a profile of Metcalfe and his work on Ethernet .]

But despite promising projects like the Alto, Xerox and its executives, apparently too busy with the copier business, didn’t pay attention to the revolution germinating at their own laboratory; Xerox marketed just a few of PARC’s inventions. As a result, PARC researchers left and went on to found companies that turned into empires that ultimately changed the way we communicate and work--companies such as Apple, Cisco, Novell, Sun, Adobe, and others.

After leaving PARC, Taylor went on to found a research center for Digital Equipment Corp. (which was later acquired by Compaq Computer Corp., Houston, Tex.) and retired in the mid-1990s. Kay is now a senior fellow at Hewlett-Packard Labs, Palo Alto, Calif., and an adjunct professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Lampson is a researcher at Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., and an adjunct professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Thacker is also a researcher at Microsoft.

The four will join a roll of prominent engineers that includes communication-satellite pioneers John R. Pierce and Harold A. Rosen, turbojet-engine inventors Sir Frank Whittle and Hans J. P. von Ohain, and integrated-circuit developers Jack S. Kilby and Robert N. Noyce. [See a list of all previous Draper Prize recipients here: http://www.nae.edu/nae/awardscom.nsf/weblinks/NAEW-4NHMN6?OpenDocument]

The National Academy of Engineering established the Draper Prize in 1989 at the request of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., Cambridge, Mass., to honor the "father of inertial navigation," and to increase public understanding of the contributions of engineering and technology. The prize, considered one of engineering profession’s highest honors, is awarded annually.

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