Obituary: Charles Thacker, who helped usher in the modern personal computer as the designer of the Xerox Alto computer and worked at Microsoft Research for 20 years, died at his Palo Alto, California, home recently.
Before Microsoft and Apple helped put a computer on every desktop, there had to be a personal computer that people would want to own in the first place.
That’s where Charles Thacker came in more than 40 years ago.
Mr. Thacker, who helped usher in the modern personal computer as the designer of the Xerox Alto computer, died at his Palo Alto, California, home last week. He was 74.
The Alto, released in 1973, introduced a graphical user interface that could be manipulated by a mouse, starting the break from a text-based user interface to an easier-to-use alternative.
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Though the device wasn’t a commercial success, it inspired the personal-computer revolution of the next 30 years. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates each borrowed from the Alto’s concepts for the Macintosh and Windows operating systems.
Like many of the relatively young core of engineers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Mr. Thacker would go on to work for other pioneering computing companies. That includes a 20-year stint beginning in 1997 at Microsoft Research, where his projects included tablet computers, circuits and data-center networking.
“He was just an extraordinary engineer,” said Butler Lampson, who worked with Mr. Thacker for almost 40 years, including at Xerox PARC and at Microsoft, where Lampson now is a technical fellow with the company’s Boston-area lab.
“His ability to see what was important to do, and also the breadth of his coverage. He could do everything from circuit design all the way through hardware architecture and programming and user-interface design.”
Mr. Thacker, like many aspiring physicists and mathematicians in the 1960s, was drawn to the emerging discipline of computing. A job at a computer-research unit run by his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, erased his aspirations to work in particle physics.
As he would joke at Microsoft four decades later, “I fell in with bad companions.”
They included Lampson, Alan Kay and Robert Taylor, engineers who would help PARC become one of Silicon Valley’s most important research outfits.
The unit would develop laser printing and Ethernet, and make advances in programming languages and semiconductors.
No innovation was more important that the leap with the Alto.
The computer came with a vertically oriented monitor, a keyboard, and a three-button mouse, a basic setup familiar to anyone using a desktop PC today. (Less familiar: the mini-fridge-size housing for the central processing unit and memory).
Eric Horvitz, who oversees Microsoft’s research labs, first encountered an Alto as a graduate student at Stanford University.
“You could see the future,” he said. “Our lives would change. Chuck was a mastermind of that kind of thinking and that kind of aspiration.”
At PARC, Mr. Thacker would also spend time on a project that took longer to realize than the PC. His colleague Kay’s “Dynabook,” a concept for a portable slate computer and keyboard, would stick with him.
He came back to it early in his tenure at Microsoft, joining Lampson in a group working on tablet PCs. Devices released beginning in 2001 introduced concepts of portability and digital pen input, but the hardware wasn’t ready.
The tablets were too expensive, heavy, and didn’t pack enough processing power or custom-built software to be very useful to consumers, a notable instance of Microsoft’s trove of engineering minds arriving on a concept before the underlying technology was advanced enough to make it a mass-market consumer product.
When Apple’s iPad, using more modern, smartphone-inspired components, made tablets a hit in 2010, Lampson said, Mr. Thacker’s wife, Karen, had a quip ready: “Well, dear, you were 10 years ahead of your time again.”
Mr. Thacker was born in Pasadena, California, in 1943. At 16 he received a scholarship to study physics at the California Institute of Technology, but transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles.
During summer 1963, he met Karen Baker and would transfer again to follow her, completing his bachelor’s degree in physics at Berkeley. The couple married in 1964.
After graduating from Berkeley in 1967, he took a job at the Genie computer research project there, and, in 1970, helped start Xerox PARC.
When Taylor, the PARC lab’s leader, was fired in 1983, Mr. Thacker and some of his compatriots followed their chief to a new lab run by Digital Equipment Corp (DEC).
With DEC in decline, his two children grown and out of the house, and Karen retired, Mr. Thacker in 1997 was considering a sabbatical in Europe when Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, asked him to help set up a research outpost in England.
It wasn’t the first time Microsoft had tried to hire him, but he jumped at the new opportunity, spending two years helping get the company’s Cambridge lab up and running. Afterward, he returned to the U.S. and a posting with Microsoft in the Bay Area.
Mr. Thacker won the industry’s highest honor, the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, in 2010, for his work on the Alto and Ethernet, among other projects.
He announced plans to retire from Microsoft last year, and left in February. Horvitz offered him a consulting contract to occasionally pitch in on projects that interested him. Mr. Thacker said he didn’t need the money, but he’d be happy to lend a hand anyway.
“I envy the young people now entering the field,” Mr. Thacker said in his lecture formally accepting the Turing award. “Because I’m pretty sure they’ll have as productive and exciting a career.”
In addition to Karen, Mr. Thacker is survived by daughters Christine and Kathy, and two grandchildren.