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In the early 1970s, the researchers at Xerox PARC needed a computer system to use at the newly founded research center. After months of planning, a group of engineers and scientists led by Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker began building a prototype computer called the Alto in November 1972. Four months later, the first Alto was completed. The original Alto's contained:
  • Bit-mapped black and white display sized 606x808
  • 5.8 MHz CPU
  • 128KB of memory (at the cost of $4,000)
  • 2.5MB removable cartridge hard drive
  • Three button mouse
  • 64-key keyboard
The Alto's display was the same dimensions as a standard (8.5"x11") sheet of paper, aligned vertically. An Alto cost $10,000 (1973) to construct.

The researchers immediately began creating additional systems and developing software to run on the computer. By the end of 1973, PARC had ten Altos; by the following summer, the lab had 40. The Alto's user interface borrowed many ideas from the work of Doug Engelbart. Doug Englebart had worked with the idea of the computer screen as a metaphor for the page since the 1960s at ARPA. He is credited with inventing the mouse for use as a pointing device on a bit-mapped display.

Development continued for the Alto for most of the 1970s, adding innovative new features in hardware and software. The PARC Altos were linked together in a local area network using a new networking technology called Ethernet. The first WYSIWYG word processor, Bravo was developed for the Alto. Much of the software developed for the Alto was written in Smalltalk, one of the first object-oriented programming languages. The following are some of the software applications available for the Alto:

  • Gypsy – Easy to use WYSIWYG word processor
  • Laurel – Network E-mail client
  • Markup and Draw – Painting and graphics manipulation
  • Neptune – File manager
  • FTP and chat utilities
  • Games - Chess, Pinball, Othello and a Star Trek game
By the spring of 1978, Altos were being used in four test sites: the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Atlantic Richfield Company, and the Santa Clara, California, and the offices of Xerox's copier sales force. Xerox donated a total of fifty Altos to Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and University of Rochester. Xerox management resisted creating a commercially available version of the Alto for several years. A demonstration given to employees of Apple Computer at PARC of the Alto heavily influenced Steve Jobs designs of the Macintosh. The Xerox Star, the first commercial product to utilize many of the Alto's ideas was released in 1981, just before the first IBM PC, at the cost of $16,000.

The Xerox Alto is considered by many to be the first personal computer.

Some fairly good pictures of the Alto are located here:

And screenshots of several of the Alto's programs are located here:

  • Xerox – Jones Telecommunications and Multimedia Encyclopedia:
  • 1972: Xerox Parc and the Alto – Computerworld:
  • Xerox Alto computer – PCBiography.com:
  • Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date - Robert X Cringely
  • Triumph of the Nerds - Robert X Cringely
  • Xerox Alto Archive – Al's Xerox Workstation Collection:

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