Xerox PARC turns 40: Marking four decades of IT innovations

For 40 years, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (commonly called Xerox PARC, now just PARC) has been a place of technological creativity and bold ideas. The inventions it has spawned, from Ethernet networking to laser printing and the graphical user interface (GUI), have led to myriad technologies that allow us to use computers in ways that we take for granted today.

When it opened on July 1, 1970, PARC was set up as a division of Xerox Corp. The idea was to invest in PARC as a springboard for developing new technologies and fresh concepts that would lead to future products.

"Conducting research at PARC four decades ago was like magic," says Dr. Robert S. Bauer, who worked at PARC from 1970 to 2001. "In an era of political and social upheaval, we came to work every day with a passion to free technology from the grip of the military-industrial complex and bring computation to the people."

Indeed, the company's "technology first" culture has sometimes brought it under fire. PARC has often been criticized for its past failures to capitalize on some of its greatest inventions, allowing other companies to cash in on its ideas. (Today, PARC has a team working to protect its intellectual property.) Nevertheless, its reputation as a technology innovator is impeccable.

Just how important is PARC in the history of IT and the high-tech products we use today? Well, InfoWorld has named PARC one of the Top 12 Holy Sites in IT. (See our timeline for its most significant computing milestones.)

Originally located at 3180 Porter Drive in Palo Alto, Calif., just a short distance from where it sits today, PARC Inc. was spun off by Xerox in January 2002 as an independent subsidiary of Xerox. Today, about 170 scientists and engineers and about 60 additional staff members work inside the 200,000-square-foot facility, where they seek answers to problems in manufacturing, development, business processes and other areas.

PARC's building includes well-stocked testing and lab facilities, a machine shop, prototyping equipment, a detailed technical and business information library and other amenities. Throughout the building, which is carved into the surrounding landscape, there's a window view from every office, and every floor has several outdoor patios -- all to encourage creative thought. The hallways are adorned with artworks by employees and local artists.

It's set up as a place where collaboration is the norm. Soft couches, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, snacks, kitchen areas and creative toys -- from squishy balls to miniature Japanese sand gardens -- are sprinkled throughout the building's common areas so researchers can relax and be imaginative together.

As PARC prepared to celebrate the start of its fifth decade in ceremonies at its Palo Alto headquarters on Sept. 23, Computerworld talked with some of the key people in PARC's acclaimed history, asking them what it was like to work for Xerox PARC years ago and what they're working on today. Here are their stories, in their own words.

Robert S. Bauer, Ph.D.

Bauer joined Xerox PARC just a few months after it opened and stayed for more than 30 years as a researcher and leader of several PARC labs. A fellow of the American Physical Society, Bauer has served as an adviser for the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, UNESCO and the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security.

He left PARC in 2001 and now works with robotics start-up Willow Garage in Menlo Park, Calif., and as the CTO of information retrieval company H5 in San Francisco.

PARC is part of my DNA. I grew up there, almost, spending 36 years there. I joined PARC on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 1970 after getting my Ph.D. at Stanford University in electrical engineering.

I sent my résumé to Xerox, and they wanted me to also interview with PARC. Directory assistance didn't even have a listing for them yet. I had to call Xerox in Rochester, N.Y., to get the number.

PARC was started in a remote location so it wouldn't be influenced by Xerox. Its goals included the crazy idea of getting a laser to write on a copy machine. At the same time, Xerox was making a big bet on the paperless office, and the charge to PARC was to become "the architects of information." From the very beginning, the PARC vision was one of interpersonal communication and collaboration, networking personal computers to enable communal sharing.

The boundary between work and play ceased to exist for us, with multiplayer graphical gaming invented simultaneously with word processing, network storage and laser printing. The technology environment around PARC spanned the spectrum from magnetic media to programming languages, computer icons, Ethernet and systems architecture.

The innovation was palpable, with each of us taking advantage of the latest experimental capabilities developed by others. The most exhilarating feelings came from dreaming, proving and making things that had never been done before.

Cool, life-altering stuff seemed to pop up all the time, from playing maze wars to getting my first e-mail and making a high-power, solid-state laser reliable. All of this was done while lounging in beanbags, shunning shoes and playing softball. The PARC style offered us the freedom to create and build stuff that we wanted in order to improve our own work and personal lives.

Kids were always there, too. People were bringing them in to let them work with the stuff to see how they interacted with it.

I was in a lab where we were starting to do research with lasers that are ubiquitous now. We were working on solid-state lasers. At that time, lasers were all big gas tubes like florescent lights, but bigger and more powerful.

The guy across the hall from me was putting up motors and spinning mirrors. There was another guy who was working with a team that was inventing Ethernet because they needed to get the data signals out faster. Then there was another guy who was building a computer from scratch. It wasn't just one thing that reinvented the future. There were a bunch of things happening at one time.

Interdisciplinary research was always the vision that PARC's co-founder, Dr. George Pake, had -- it was atoms to computers. The research lab was set up as an academic department: There was a systems sciences lab, an optical science lab, a general science lab and a computer science lab.

There was a driving vision that connected people in terms of what they wanted to achieve. It isn't like there were all these people doing all these random things -- there was always a unifying thing that everyone was working on.

We fed off each other. We would all be rubbing shoulders and sharing our ideas and seeing how they could fit and work together. PARC is still same way 40 years later.

Mark Bernstein

Bernstein, the CEO of PARC, has worked at the organization since 1979, serving in various roles before taking the top job in 2001.

I arrived in 1979 with a five-year plan, and I'm still here for a variety of reasons. The people here are a critical part of what makes PARC special. PARC is most well known for developing distributed computing as a consequence of fulfilling the vision it was handed -- to develop the office of the future.

Doug Englebart, who was at Stanford Research Institute when he came up with the idea for the first computer mouse, came to PARC later to work with us on graphical user interfaces. He envisioned people collaborating with computers at a time when people were still loading FORTRAN on computers. That was PARC's founding vision, a really important legacy.

Ubiquitous computing is something we're in the middle of today. In the mid '80s, long before Apple's iPad, we had the PARCPad, a tablet-like computer, and the PARCTab, a handheld device that was a precursor to the PDA. We also had the LiveBoard, which was a large-screen, interactive, networked projection display.

The notion here was that you would have all these different kinds of devices and you could collaborate. The invention of shared workspaces was one of the applications that we developed.

I think a lot of that vision has come through over the last 25 years, and you're starting to see some of the work done then become visible now. The idea that people wouldn't have to pay so much attention to actual computers -- that part of the vision hasn't come true yet. That theme is one that PARC is still working on.

George Pake, the founding father of PARC, was charged to come out and build this institution to help build the office of the future. His belief was that rather than having individual disciplines in their own departments, all focusing on their own research without collaborating, that they be brought together. Then, he believed, you'd end up getting results that you wouldn't get in any other way.

If you look at that model, that's how we're structured today. We have an incredible breadth of disciplines. They're focused on problems from the bottom up. We have a great cafeteria and people have lunch together and have unintended conversations that lead to new innovations.

Each lab has an internal lab meeting each week. People come in from other groups. Outside speakers come in. There's a PARC forum every Thursday at 4 p.m. and anyone is invited. It is a special culture.

The whole thing at PARC is to find the big ideas and work on them together. When April's Gulf of Mexico oil spill occurred, someone thought to get together for lunch and they thought about ways to better capture the oil. There's a natural conversation that happens between researchers that is either purposeful or shooting the breeze or throwing ideas out for discussion. All those things come into play here.

We don't go into something thinking we know the answers. We go in with our awareness piqued and we try to learn as much as we can all the time. We do those same things for our business clients to help them with research for their own products and services. We focus on understanding what kind of systemic problems they're facing in their industries and how we can help them.

Now you now see why my five-year plan went out the window and why I'm still here.

Steve Cousins

Cousins worked at PARC from 1996 to 2004 as the leader of a group within the Advanced Systems Development Laboratory. He later worked for the IBM Almaden Research Center from 2004 to 2007, where he was the senior manager of the User-Focused Systems Research Group. Today he's the CEO of Willow Garage.

The biggest thing that I took from working at PARC is the culture of innovation that is there. It's filled with very, very smart people.

Just the discussions over lunch were interesting. People would see if you have this capability that they sought, and then you'd go and have lunch with them and realize, "Ooh, maybe we should be working together."

It was also mind-opening in other ways. Some discussions got really heated. I don't remember any food fights, though.

Every week, there's a lab meeting and each person takes turns leading it. Anyone could go if they had an interest. That's when a lot of that informal interaction happened.

The architecture of the pods where you had offices around open spaces worked well, too. That let people participate in the conversations.

The first 25 years of PARC were surrounded by magic. The Xerox Alto computer was developed there and came out three years after PARC began. For the next 10 years, hardware evolved and software was built on it. Ten years later, the Xerox Star came out, followed by others.

Now, here I am at Willow Garage and we're three years old. PARC had a huge influence on my work here. There are interesting parallels as I look back and see them. PARC created the first personal computer, and Willow Garage is creating the first personal robot. At Willow Garage, our main work area is surrounded by offices, just like at PARC. You look around and wonder how much of that was consciously or unconsciously taken with me.

A look at other key U.S. technology research centers

Xerox is, of course, just one of many U.S. technology companies that have created independent arms dedicated to research: AT&T Bell Laboratories, IBM Research and dozens of other institutions associated with tech industry giants have made groundbreaking advances in computing and communications.

But it's not just private companies that have made significant contributions to technology in the U.S.: Universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies have all made giant strides as well. Here are three of the most noteworthy:

* The Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT has been an important researcher in computing, electronics and artificial intelligence since the 1940s. Among many other innovations, MIT researchers helped create the basis for magnetic core memory, invented the RSA encryption algorithm and developed early and influential programming languages such as LISP (shorthand for "List Processing"), operating systems such as the Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) and applications like the Sketchpad graphics program and the Emacs text editor. The GNU free software project and the World Wide Web Consortium were founded at MIT.

* The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: DARPA, which started in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), is another hugely important research organization in the world of IT. Working in collaboration with researchers at universities and private institutions, DARPA provided the muscle behind a wide array of computing technologies, including microprocessors, computer graphics, time sharing, parallel computing and the Internet, which was based on the agency's own ARPAnet.

* SRI International: Formerly known as the Stanford Research Institute, SRI International has been heavily involved in basic and applied research in computing and information sciences for more than 60 years. Among the nonprofit's key computing innovations are the first computer mouse, early speech-recognition software and a groundbreaking computer collaboration system called the "On-Line System" (also known as NLS). SRI was instrumental in the development of the ARPAnet and later the Internet.

Scott Elrod, Ph.D.

Elrod, a 25-year PARC veteran, is the director of the hardware systems laboratory at PARC, which focuses on clean technologies, inkjet printing and hardware systems for other applications. He's also the director of the Cleantech Innovation Program, whose goal is to find cleaner ways to produce energy and manufacture products.

Laser printers were invented at PARC and have been the foundation of most of Xerox's business. It takes extremely complex physics and science to make laser printing work. The research work to make them faster, with higher resolution, new light sources and multiple lasers, is proving to be a very strong foundation for moving into other technology markets with our research and products.

One area is clean tech. In the future, energy and water will remain as pressing needs and areas where innovation is needed.

By looking at how we manipulate little toner particles for laser printing, including removing the particles from a stream of liquid to better distribute them on a finished document, we can find new ways to apply those processes. Our researchers learned that if you introduce a liquid with particulates into a rectangular channel and then curve the channel, the particulates will migrate to the outside edge with low force. You can get the particulates to gracefully move to one side of the channel.

Now we're looking at this for filtering algae from water, separating materials to distill bio-fuels and for oil and water separation, which is extremely interesting right now because of the stuff going on in the Gulf of Mexico with the BP oil spill. We've demonstrated a 10 times reduction of solids from liquids using these hydrodynamic separation technologies over the last several years. In the Gulf spill, that might be enough to get rid of a sheen on the water's surface; it wouldn't be good for the large globs of oil.

We do a lot of analysis of optical systems and how they can be mass-produced for laser printing. Several years ago, we met some entrepreneurs with SolFocus Inc. who had ideas for a light focuser that would take in light from the sun and focus it onto a receiver for low-cost solar power. PARC became an incubator for the project.

We're also working on a U.S. Department of Energy contract with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Power Assure Inc. to find new ways to teach devices, from laser printer components to whole data centers, how to read their own operating conditions so they can adjust and control themselves with less human intervention using a concept called model-based control. That could help in factory settings with plant controls and also could apply to data centers and help with energy optimization.

We're always looking at ideas and technologies to make them better. Recently, we've been thinking of using acoustics for cooling. Called thermo-acoustic cooling, it involves using sound waves in a series of expansions and compressions, which is what a traditional air conditioning compressor does with a gas. It's been around for a while, but no one has figured how to make it efficient at room temperatures. That's what we've been working on.

It could be two to three times more efficient than conventional air conditioning compressors. That's huge compared to the typical 5% annual industry performance gains using traditional technologies.

Appliance efficiency, new ways to generate electricity and the development of renewable fuels are all areas where we will continue to work. The scale of global warming is so large that it will require new ideas and technologies to solve the problems.

We have a project now that is looking at capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the air. What if you could capture it on-site and make it into liquid fuel and burn it in vehicles? Then you could recapture it from the air again, essentially using the atmosphere for recycling CO2. It could be 10 years away. We're seeking government partnering for this CO2 extraction.

From my perspective, the energy and water angles are going to be prime markets for innovation for decades.

Next: Timeline of PARC computing milestones

Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. You can follow him on Twitter, where his handle is @TechManTalking. His e-mail address is toddrweiss@gmail.com.

This story, "Xerox PARC turns 40: Marking four decades of IT innovations" was originally published by Computerworld.

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