Turing Award winner Charles P. Thacker, Designer of the PC, Dies at 74

Mr. Thacker was the lead designer of the Xerox Alto that eventually led to what became the Apple Macintosh. He also was a co-inventor of Ethernet and the tablet PC.


Turing Award winner Charles P. Thacker, who was the lead designer of the world's first modern personal computer and a co-inventor of Ethernet with Bob Metcalfe, David Boggs and Butler Lampson, died June 12 of cancer at his home in Palo Alto. He was 74.

Mr. Thacker received the Turing Award—widely considered the Nobel Prize of computer science—in 2009. His inventions or co-inventions--he also contributed to the development of the laser printer--have had a long-lasting effect on the IT business.

He was the lead designer of the Xerox Alto that eventually led to what became the Apple Macintosh. The Alto was an experimental desktop computer that in 1973 introduced two concepts no one had seen before in any computer: the mouse, which was designed and built by Xerox and (and later, SRI International) engineer Doug Englebart, and the graphical user interface. Both remain foundational physical components for computers today.

The Alto also was the first to implement the Ethernet networking concept, the computer networking protocol that allows PCs to connect with each another and to the Internet. Ethernet and its various descendants are pervasive in IT networking today, thanks largely to Metcalfe, who went to to found 3COM--which was later acquired by Hewlett-Packard Co.

Xerox never took full advantage of all the PC and network innovation that was going on its in prize research and development lab, largely because management was so focused on the business of selling printers and copiers. Instead, it was a young Steve Jobs who saw the big-picture potential of Alto.

Jobs and partner Steve Wozniak already had built the main components of their Apple I and II computer, but it lacked a superior user interface. After witnessing a demo of the Alto, Jobs immediately went about developing his own mouse and GUI for his future Macintosh and Lisa desktop PCs.

In later years, Mr. Thacker joined the Microsoft research team that designed and built the world's first tablet (Tablet PC, 2002), but the company ultimately was unsuccessful with it. For Mr. Thacker, it was a deja vu moment: Again, he was affiliated with a company that couldn't monetize a product correctly, so Jobs again copied the concept to come up with the iPad in 2010.

It's not a stretch to say that Xerox PARC turned out to be one of the best research operations for Apple, now the world's richest and most successful company.

In an email to Ars Technica, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee computer historian Thomas Haigh wrote about Mr. Thacker's contributions:

"Alto is the direct ancestor of today's personal computers. It provided the model: GUI, windows, high-resolution screen, Ethernet, mouse, etc. that the computer industry spent the next 15 years catching up to. Of course others like Alan Kay and Butler Lampson spent years evolving the software side of the platform, but without Thacker's creation of what was, by the standards of the early 1970s, an amazingly powerful personal hardware platform, none of that other work would have been possible."

Thacker was born in Pasadena, Calif. on Feb. 26, 1943. He received his B.S. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1967, then joined the university's "Project Genie" in 1968, which developed the pioneering Berkeley Timesharing System on the SDS 940.

Lampson, Thacker, and others then left to form the Berkeley Computer Corp., where Thacker designed the processor and memory system. While BCC was not commercially successful, this group eventually became the core technologists in the Computer Systems Laboratory at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Go here to view a YouTube video commercial about the Alto.

Image: Creative Commons/Martin Wichary/CC 2.0

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...