Alan Kay

Time PC CoverThe Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency funding of SRI’s work dried up in the early 1970s. When Engelbart’s Stanford Research Institute  activity center closed in 1977, a number of its computer researchers moved on to Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) to carry on their work on human/computer interfaces.

PARC researchers, including notably Alan Kay, continued to focus on marrying graphics and animation to computer systems. They also thought about simpler interfaces that even children could interact with. Pertinent to Britannica, Kay would also focus later on the likely nature of an electronic encyclopedia.

Alan Kay

Alan Kay

Kay’s early education had had a lot to do with computers. After a tour in the Air Force working on IBM computers, Kay had enrolled at the University of Colorado, receiving his undergraduate degree in mathematics and molecular biology in 1966. In 1969, he received his PhD in computer science from the University of Utah. His thesis was about graphical object orientation. After teaching two years at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Kay moved on to PARC, where he focused on bitmap displays, windowing, and the point-click-and-drag user interface.

When Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple visited PARC in 1979, they saw the future of computing in what Kay and his colleagues had been working on. Apple’s later unique graphical user interface reflected PARC’s cutting edge approach to interface design. Not surprisingly, Kay later served Apple directly as a research Fellow, before serving in a similar capacity for The Walt Disney Company, and, beginning in November 2002, for Hewlett-Packard. Through the work of Nelson, Engelbart, Kay and many others, Bush’s early ideas about advances in computing technology evolved and, by the early 1980s, computing machines had begun to enter the consumer mainstream.

However, the prevailing operating system displays of the day were still arid and text centric. There were no high resolution or color displays. Also missing was the much larger local storage capacity required to play the game of dynamic knowledge management.

As a result, dreaming up a theoretical machine with an interface for ordinary folk and filled with programs rich in data and loaded with computer-based hyperlinks remained much easier to do than actually building one. Many such as Ted Nelson and Alan Kay had begun to think the interface side of things through. Kay in particular gave extended thought to construction of a complex encyclopedic database.

However, the stage had been set for the big breakthrough: computers built for the consumer market. Louisiana Senator Huey Long’s depression era campaign promise of “a chicken in every pot” became “a computer in every home” for Apple and IBM in the 1980s. Time magazine made the IBM Personal Computer “Machine of the Year” in 1981, and the next year Steve Jobs of Apple made the cover. This was testament to the fact that the computer finally was moving out of its prior confines of big government, big business, and big universities and into the home.