Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

This is actually the first book I’ve read about early computing history, and I feel incredibly ignorant for not having read up on it sooner! Xerox PARC is an incredible institution by any scale, and this book takes an in-depth look at how it formed — and the people behind the inventions it pumped out like a heartbeat.

One deceptively simple idea that’s also really hard to do is:

the best way to manage research was to select the best people in a given field and set them loose.

This takes not just trust in the people you hire, but serious dough. You need to set aside a budget for exploratory science that may not return dividends for years to come.

In the end, Xerox PARC was able to pump out inventions that shaped the future of computing — many of which are in use today (multitasking, laser printers). While other companies walked away with it’s lunch, it was still able to declare profitability for Xerox, after releasing the best selling product in Xerox history: the laser printer.

Notable notes

Great demonstration of the

As for Goldman’s objection that Palo Alto was too far from any Xerox property, Pake countered with a neat equivocation: Let proximity mean being close enough to reach a Xerox facility in time for lunch.

An early trend in computer system design, elegantly captured below by an IBM executive .. after noticing that people tend to build into their second project all of the pet features that tight schedules and budgets didn’t allow for in the first:

“The second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs.”

TIP: Be curious. This is how you teach your kids to love science:

“People get trapped in thinking that anything in the environment is to be taken as a given. It’s part of the way our nervous system works. But it’s dangerous to take it as a given because then it controls you, rather than the other way around. That’s McLuhan’s insight, one of the bigger ones in the twentieth century. Zen in the twentieth century is about taking things that have been rendered invisible by this process and trying to make them visible again. “Parents ask me what they should do to help their kids with science. I say, on a walk always take a magnifying glass along. Be a miniature exploratorium….”

Alan Kay, in a challenge of epic proportions, attempted to design a programming language that even children could learn (Smalltalk):

Papert showed the way toward reducing the machine from demigod to tool (in Wes Clark’s phrase) by subjecting it to the unforgiving scrutiny of children. Kay never forgot the lesson.

One principle Taylor imparted to his people was that the things they built had to be designed for daily use. Too many research labs turned out playthings and prototypes designed to go on a shelf, as though merely for display.

The laser printer almost didn’t make it through the bureaucratic ceiling of Xerox Corporation:

It was a perilous delay. The plan to commercialize the laser printer would be killed and resurrected three times in that period, saved only by the obstinacy of an executive named Jack Lewis, who ran the company’s printing division and ignored the orders from higher-ups to deep-six the project. Finally launched in 1977 as the 9700 printer, Gary Starkweather’s laser device fulfilled its inventor’s faith by becoming one of Xerox’s best-selling products of all time.

Big leaps required faith; measured steps required only science and a ruler.

Kay remained preoccupied with a lesson he had assimilated from Marshall McLuhan: Once humans shape their tools, they turn around and “reshape us.”

Finally, it’s really interesting how, depending on which side of the invention you’re sitting on, you can see things so differently:

“John Sculley [the former chairman of Apple, where Starkweather worked after leaving PARC] said to me once, ‘I don’t ever want a PARC.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘All the technology leaked out.’ I said, ‘You just want the ability to control such an institution, not to not have the institution.’”

Yet even Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, prefers to define Microsoft Research in terms of what PARC was not: “We didn’t want a situation like Xerox, where the research was decoupled from product design. [We want] people who are supersmart but also have a desire to see their work in use.” This does not mean that great discoveries, even surprising ones, will not be made here and there by researchers working for corporations. It simply means that a certain quality once possessed by PARC in its extraordinary early years seems to have departed from the world of science and technology, perhaps forever. Call it magic.