Behind the Scenes at Xerox Parc’s Futures Day—40 Years Ago

Pulling off Xerox Parc's historical day of demos involved a borrowed airport refrigeration truck and an ax

3 min read
Xerox Parc researchers arrive in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1977, where they would soon unveil their vision for the office of the future.
Xerox Parc researchers arrive in Boca Raton, Fla., in 1977, where they would soon unveil their vision for the office of the future.
Photo: Xerox PARC Archives

When we look back at history-making tech demos, first on the list is typically Doug Engelbart’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos” that introduced windows, video conferencing, and the mouse.

Next on the list? How about Xerox Parc’s “Futures Day”?

Futures Day wasn’t widely recognized before last month, but thanks to a couple of 40-year commemorations, it is claiming its place in history.

Futures Day took place in Boca Raton, Fla., on 10 November 1977. Three-hundred-plus Xerox executives and their wives had gathered for an annual meeting, and the Parc team had been invited to demo their work. They had a lot to show off—like the Alto networked desktop computers, laser printers, word processing software, email, circuit design tools. More than 100 Parc staff members worked on the demo, and nearly 50 went to Boca Raton to put on the show, recalled former Parc researcher Chuck Geschke. Geschke was there from 1972 to 1982, when he left to start Adobe Systems.

Chuck Geschke and Leslie Berlin at the Xerox PARC event. Chuck Geschke and Leslie Berlin discuss Xerox’s 1977 Futures Day Photo: Tekla Perry

Geschke spoke with historian Leslie Berlin in front of a packed house of current Parc staff members, alumni, and interested outsiders gathered on the Parc campus Thursday evening.

The researchers went to Hollywood for help on building a set, with four mock cubicles. They then dragged 20 Alto computers and six laser printers to Boca Raton, leasing space on two DC-10s to get it all there, Geschke reported.

And they really were making it all up as they went along.

“We knew about SRI and the amazing demo,” he said, but the Parc team hadn’t actually seen it. “We didn’t have a road map; Steve Jobs wasn’t around yet to show us what to do on the stage.”

Historical photo of a man bent over a room full of Xerox Altos. A Xerox Parc researcher tinkers with one of the many Alto computers lined up in Boca Raton, Fla., in 1977. Photo: Xerox PARC Archives

First they had to fix the Altos. “Personal computers weren’t as reliable in those days; when you move them, things move inside them,” Geschke said.

That wasn’t unexpected. But what they hadn’t foreseen was the heat problem in steamy Florida.

The air-conditioning in the hotel was designed for a social event, not for all this hardware generating all this heat, Geschke recalled, and, as all the gear started running, the temperature inside quickly climbed to 100 degrees. The Altos weren’t going to survive that, said Geschke. Then, he recalled, John Ellenby, who was running the demo effort, remembered that when planes were sitting by the gate at the Fort Lauderdale airport, refrigeration trucks drove up and pumped cool air through a hose.

So, said Geschke, “we called the airport in Fort Lauderdale and sweet-talked them into lending us a truck.”

That was only part of the battle, he recalled. Because the airport trucks just operated on the tarmac, they didn’t have license plates. The researchers were nothing if not problem solvers—this was the team that, when told by Xerox management that they weren’t authorized to purchase a PDP-10 mainframe computer, built one themselves.

“We called the state police,” Geschke said, and arranged a police escort to the hotel.

Historical photo of a man in front of a refridgerated truck at Xerox PARC. A air-conditioning truck borrowed from a nearby airport saved Xerox Parc’s 1977 demos. Photo: Xerox PARC Archives

Getting the cold air from the truck into the demo room posed another challenge. “We found a window we were able to pull out,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was a tree in front of it. We got an ax and cut down the tree—you gotta do what you gotta do. We didn’t tell the hotel.”

It was an odd time to be at a meeting of Xerox executives, Berlin pointed out. The executives were spending their days and nights in coddled luxury. They were “flown first class, driven in luxury cars, wined and dined every night, and their wives had fashion shows. Henry Kissinger the featured speaker, at a fancy event with live orchestras and champagne.”

During the days of meetings, however, the Xerox executives preached doom and gloom, as Japanese copier companies were encroaching on Xerox’s business and Xerox’s stock had dropped dramatically on the day the event opened.

The Parc researchers were held out as the hope for a better future, but the executives didn’t exactly embrace their vision.

After a couple of hours of demos, the executives were directed to hands-on demos at exhibit booths. “Their body language was clear,” Geschke said, as they marched through with arms crossed in the classic defensive posture, some expressing surprise to see men typing so well.

“The wives, though, thought it was great,” he said.

And looking back across the decades at Futures Day, it turns out the wives were right.

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The HX-63 cipher machine

The HX-63 cipher machine is an electromechanical, rotor-based system designed and built by Crypto AG.
The machine uses nine rotors [center right] to encrypt messages. A dual paper-tape printer is at the upper left.

PETER ADAMS

Growing up in New York City, I always wanted to be a spy. But when I graduated from college in January 1968, the Cold War and Vietnam War were raging, and spying seemed like a risky career choice. So I became an electrical engineer, working on real-time spectrum analyzers for a U.S. defense contractor.

In 1976, during a visit to the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw, I saw an Enigma, the famous German World War II cipher machine. I was fascinated. Some years later, I had the good fortune of visiting the huge headquarters of the cipher machine company Crypto AG (CAG), in Steinhausen, Switzerland, and befriending a high-level cryptographer there. My friend gave me an internal history of the company written by its founder, Boris Hagelin. It mentioned a 1963 cipher machine, the HX-63.

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