When you clicked an icon to launch your web browser to read this article, you can thank Charles Thacker (among others).
In 1973, Thacker and a group of scientists at the famed Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) built the Alto, the world’s first desktop computer. The Alto featured many innovations that we take for granted today in our personal computers: a television-like screen, graphical user interface, windows, icons, and a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editor.
The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) has awarded Charles Thacker with the Turing Award, which is considered to be the “Nobel Prize in Computing.” The award includes a $250,000 check, with financial support by Intel and Google. Since 1966 the Turing Award has honored computer scientists and engineers who “created the systems and underlying theoretical foundations that have propelled the information technology industry.”
The award was named for British mathematician Alan M. Turing, who described the mathematical foundation and limits of computing. A programming language is considered to be “Turing Complete” when the “rules followed in sequence on arbitrary data can produce the result of any calculation.” A device is considered to be a computer if it’s Turing Complete.
The Alto was never released as a commercial product, though Xerox built several thousand units. The first prototype cost $12,000, which was surprisingly inexpensive compared to the mini and mainframe computers of the era. Like many incredible PARC inventions, Xerox was slow to realize the commercial potential of the Alto. It took Apple and the Macintosh to bring desktop computing to the masses a decade later.
Thacker was also the co-inventor of the Ethernet LAN, which is the ubiquitous computer network in homes and businesses today. In 1983 Thacker co-founded the Systems Research Center (SRC) at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), where he designed the Firefly multiprocessor workstation. This was yet another invention ahead of its time but pretty much standard today, even in general purpose PCs. Thacker joined Microsoft Research in 1997 to help establish its Microsoft Research Cambridge laboratory, where he designed the hardware for the first Tablet PCs. Over the years Thacker contributed to many other important projects including the first laser printer. Thacker holds 29 patents in computer systems and networking.
Past winners of the Turing Award include Alan Kay in 2003 for pioneering object-oriented development and inventing the Smalltalk programming language, Douglas Engelbart in 1997 for his many important inventions including the computer mouse, and Ken Thompson and Dennis M. Ritchie in 1983 for their role in developing UNIX.
Article published on March 19, 2010
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