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.

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.

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