Smalltalk Blew Steve Jobs’s Mind

Its graphical user interface inspired change at Apple’s core

1 min read
A screenshot of a bitmapped and mostly grayscale computer desktop with text in multiple windows and a cartoon of a leprechaun.

Smalltalk-78 had a graphical user interface that greatly impressed Steve Jobs when he saw it demoed in 1979.

Hansen Hsu/Computer History Museum

Late in 1979,Steve Jobs and other colleagues from Apple visited the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). There they were introduced to the experimental Alto computer and the Smalltalk language and computing environment, developed by Alan Kay’s Learning Research Group. Smalltalk was a breakthrough in object-oriented programming, an approach that’s used in many of the most popular programming languages today. During his visit, Jobs was taken with Smalltalk’s graphical user interface, and it reshaped his subsequent approach at Apple. This screen capture from the version of Smalltalk demoed for Jobs shows a critical moment that impressed him. Dan Ingalls, one of the developers of Smalltalk, was able to change the user interface live, switching the appearance of selected text from white text on a black background to a bounding rectangular box (as in the upper left window). More recently, Ingalls created the Smalltalk Zoo, a collection of Smalltalk emulators that you can run in your browser to experience for yourself Jobs’s aha moment. For more on the history of Smalltalk and the Alto, see “50 Years Later, We’re Still Living in the Xerox Alto’s World.”

Part of a continuing serieslooking at historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

The Conversation (1)
Bill Cernansky
Bill Cernansky03 Mar, 2023

If the hideous, largely unreadable typeface in the accompanying screenshot had been the font that Steve Jobs saw in Smalltalk's editing environment, I suspect that it would have taken an additional decade for GUIs to catch his fancy.