How did it come about that a manufacturer of office equipment developed—and then largely abandoned—the first personal computer?
By J. R. Carroll.
Not long ago we lost Dennis Ritchie, author of the C programming language and co-creator of the Unix operating system. Now comes word of the passing of Jacob Goldman, who also and even more profoundly influenced the late Steve Jobs and, indeed, the entire evolution of personal computing.
In 1968 John Bardeen, a physicist on the Board of the Xerox Corporation and a pioneer in the development of the transistor at Bell Labs in his early days, persuaded Xerox management to hire Goldman, then the manager of research and development at Ford Motors, as their Chief Technical Officer. In turn, the following year Goldman recruited physicist George Pake to establish a research facility similar to Bell Labs in Palo Alto, CA.
In the decade-plus of his tenure prior to retiring in 1982, Goldman and Pake built the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (better known as Xerox PARC) into a hotbed of computer innovation and attracted a stellar staff of visionaries whose work coalesced around what is generally regarded as the first personal computer, the Xerox Alto. Equipped with a bitmapped CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor, a keyboard, a three-button mouse, an Ethernet LAN (local area network) port, and, most important, a GUI (graphical user interface) that supported applications like document preparation and the Smalltalk software development environment, the Alto brought together most of the elements of today’s desktop and laptop computers.
Sadly, aside from the laser printer, the value of PARC’s cutting-edge technologies was largely lost on Xerox upper management, who lacked the foresight of the PARC researchers. However, the lessons of the Alto were not lost. In 1979 a young entrepreneur by the name of Steve Jobs visited PARC and got a good look at the Alto; astounded that Xerox was letting all this technology lie fallow, Jobs ran with it, all the way from the first Macintosh to the iPad.
While Jacob Goldman wasn’t a hands-on innovator like Ritchie or a master product developer like Jobs, the influence of the research institution he brought into being pervades our lives today.