Xerox PARC turns 40: Marking four decades of tech innovations

On its 40th anniversary, PARC researchers provide a behind-the-scenes peek into the company's culture and projects, past and present.

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.

The current PARC building

The PARC building in Palo Alto, Calif. Click to view larger image.

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.

Next: "Cool, life-altering stuff"

Related video: PARC's birthday celebration

The IDG News Service visits PARC for its 40th birthday celebration featuring reminiscences from alumni and current researchers.

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