A Talk by Alan Kay

Sketchpad, 1962

Ivan Sutherland

Grail, 1969

Thomas Ellis and the Rand Corporation

The Dynabook, 1971-77

Alan Kay and the PARC Learning Research Group

If somebody just sat down and implemented what Bush had wanted in 1945, and didn't try and add any extra features, we would like it today. I think the same thing is true about what we wanted for the Dynabook.
—Alan Kay

In this clip Alan Kay discusses the Dynabook—created by a group Kay led at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)—and two important predecessors. One is Sketchpad, a drawing program that helped to define how we interact with computers graphically today. This early-1960s system not only let people draw on a computer display, it also let the computer serve as more than a poor replacement for a piece of paper. Sketchpad's most recognizable features were its direct-manipulation interface, which allowed elements to be drawn based on constraints; these sorts of interfaces are discussed by Ben Shneiderman in the New Media Reader book (<>33). Susan Brennan named Sketchpad's interface the first conversational interface. Sketchpad's treatment of drawing elements as objects makes it an important predecessor to object-oriented programming, which Kay helped to develop. Also discussed here is Grail (GRAphic Input Language), designed by Thomas Ellis and programmed by Gabriel Groner and others at the Rand Corporation. Using the Rand Tablet and code for recognizing objects, the system would allow freehand input of letterforms, boxes, and lines, as well as corrections to previous drawings. The drawings that were input consisted of meaningful objects within a flow chart. As Ellis and coauthors John Heafner and William Sibley wrote in 1967, "Through symbol recognition techniques and display area analysis, GRAIL will interpret the user's intent and respond accordingly; and in addition, will maintain files of displays and data structures for information retrieval and ultimately, program interpretation or compilation and execution." The last topic from Kay's talk is the Dynabook—a vision that came about because Kay, Adele Goldberg, and others in the Learning Research Group at Xerox PARC considered that the computer could be used creatively, even by children. Their explorations led them to develop not only a prescient vision of notebook computing (the Dynabook), but also the Smalltalk object-oriented programming language (which is still being developed today in Kay's Squeak project) and the essence of the personal desktop computer (seen in the "interim Dynabook," which evolved into Xerox's Alto and then the Star). One persistent myth about the work of Xerox in this era—which Kay has worked actively to dispel in historical talks such as this one—is that PARC invented the mouse and graphical user interface (GUI). The mouse was invented by Doug Engelbart and others at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC); the GUI has its roots in systems such as Sketchpad, Grail, and ARC's NLS. What Kay and others accomplished involved striking improvements on these elements. They invented elements of the interface now so natural that we take them for granted—for instance, overlapping windows. Apple Computer then commercialized and refined the GUI into a system very much like that we use today—a system which became nearly ubiquitous after its adoption in Microsoft Windows. In the book, related readings include the 1962 article by Sutherland about Sketchpad (<>09) and the article about the later work on the Dynabook and on Smalltalk by Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg (<>26).

Icon for the video of Kay's talk. Alan Kay talks about Sketchpad, Grail, the Dynabook. QuickTime video. [Duration: 8'36.] From The History of the Personal Workstation, 27 May 1986.

Also from the 1960s

Also from the era: the first modern video game, Spacewar!; Weizenbaum's famous chatterbot system Eliza/Doctor; and Engelbart's NLS demo.

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