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Maggie Shiels

The man who inspired a generation

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 30 Jun 08, 11:41 GMT

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Chuck Thacker is something of a hero in the world of technology yet outside of it, he remains a virtual unknown.

Show people a photo of say Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and I bet quite a few people on the street will know who they are. Certainly they will have heard of them and probably have one or more of their products but Chuck Thacker is a different kettle of fish. And that's a shame given the influence he has had on so much of our lives.

In short, Chuck is the man who essentially gave us the personal computer. In 1974 he switched on the Xerox Alto, the first computer that looked and worked like the PCs we are all so familiar with today. Incidentially, it's first task was to display an image of Sesame Street's Cookie Monster.

While working at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre he also helped pioneer another major advance in the world of computing, namely the Ethernet LAN (Local Area Network). He has also been involved in a host of computer architecture advancements, the tablet PC and even did work on the X box.

Today Mr Thacker works for Microsoft . I met him recently at their Silicon Valley labs where the world's number one software company had thrown open their doors to the press and school kids to display what innovations they are working on.

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The white haired and bespectacled Mr Thacker is still getting his hands dirty. He was happily showing off his work on a hardware platform called the BEE3 which he hopes will return architechture to the cutting edge of computer science.

As well as being inundated by people interested in what he is doing today, there was a steady stream undeniably in awe of the man and his achievements.

He is quietly proud of his time at the PARC labs but it's not something he boasts about having to be prompted several times to talk to me about it.

"It was the most intensely creative period of my life that roughly 10 years between 1970 and 1980. More good stuff came out of that Lab than I ever thought possible. It was truly amazing."

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Legend has it that the Alto directly inspired Apple to build the Macintosh after Steve Jobs paid a friendly visit to the Xerox labs in 1979 where Chuck was working at the time.

Mr Thacker is a man of few words, most definitely not given to hyperbole. And even when he criticises he does it in a reasoned logical way.

Take his comments on the progress of the PC, the industry he paved the way for: "You have to make money, there is no doubt about that. But I think it is having a negative effect on innovation. If you look at the pc industry as a whole, the people that make the hardware do not have high margins. That's a very razor thin business.

"In the PC industry, not the computing industry in general, the margins are so low that innovation happens much more slowly."

And just in case that all sounded a bit too critical, Mr Thacker talked up the future of the PC and his vision for it. A vision that has been echoed by his retired boss Bill Gates who said he wanted to put a PC in every home.

"The PC has done an awful lot for improving people's lives, there is no doubt about that. I did envisage that.

"I used to say that the first revolution of computers was when scientists had them, the second was when business had them and the third revolution is when everyone has them. We haven't quite made that but I am optomistic that we will."

So what for Chuck Thacker is the indespensible gadget of the day? He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his smart phone.

"It weighs a mere 50 grams and can do everything I need it to do. The first computer I made probably weighed 30,000 pounds and was a couple of inches by a couple of inches.

"This phone is roughly 2,000 times the speed and has a thousand times the memory of that Alto. Plus this is just $400 and that thing back then was around $12,000."

And he adds wistfully: "That was back when a dollar was actually worth more than a dollar."


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