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Larry Tesler (1945-2020)

March 30, 2020

Large corporations are run by managers who often need to make important decisions about new products and services. This can be a problem for technology companies run by non-technologists. These managers are good at making business decisions, but are often lost when a decision involves an emerging technology. When all you have is an MBA, everything looks like a business problem.

CEOs might consult with middle managers who have an adequate technical background; but, even then, they often ignore threats to their company's industrial dominance by those pesky disruptive technologies. One illustrative example is Kodak, of which I wrote about in an earlier article (George Eastman and Kodak, February 21, 2012). Another is General Electric.

George Eastman on a 1954 US Postage Stamp

Canceled in more ways than one.

The master of photography, George Eastman, rendered in an etching on a 1954 United States postage stamp.

Eastman named his company, Kodak, since he liked the sound of the letter "k." At its peak, in 1976, Kodak had 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the United States.

Kodak was founded in 1888, so it's survived for more than 130 years. Its downfall was the emergence of digital photography. Since Kodak was a chemical company, it could not easily pivot into this electronics market.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)


For one reason or another, some companies do the right thing. That's how a Texas leather goods company, Tandy Corporation, became involved with personal computers with its acquisition of RadioShack in 1963. RadioShack introduced the TRS-80 computer in 1977, the first in a line of popular computers. The BASIC interpreter for the TRS-80 was developed by Microsoft, and apparently coded by Bill Gates, himself. RadioShack became such an important part of Tandy Corporation that it changed its name to RadioShack Corporation in 2000.

I remember an interesting anecdote about TRS-80 BASIC. In a demonstration of the language to the Tandy CEO, Gates had written a simple program to estimate how expensive a house could be mortgaged based on your annual income. When the CEO tried the program using his salary, the BASIC interpreter couldn't handle such a large number, and the program crashed.

In the history of computing, there's one corporation that stands near the top of the list for lost opportunities that are mixed among many accomplishments; namely, Xerox. The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was founded in 1970 in the heart of Silicon Valley to research new technologies to supplement its highly successful photocopier business. I wrote about PARC on its 40th anniversary in 2010 in an earlier article (PARC Turns Forty, September 28, 2010). In 2002, PARC became a wholly-owned subsidiary, which allows it to accept work from other companies. Xerox is a true technology company, and it owes its fortunes to the Xerography invention of American physicist, Chester Carlson.

Carlson obtained his physics degree at the start of the Great Depression, he couldn't find a job in physics, so he took an engineering position with Bell Telephone Laboratories when it was still in New York City. He eventually transferred to its patent department as an assistant to a patent attorney, eventually becoming the head of the patent department at P. R. Mallory and Company. Carlson received an LL.B. degree in 1939 by attending law school at night.

Carlson conducted experiments at home on copy techniques different from the chemical photographic techniques of the time. He eventually discovered that an electrostatically-charged sulfur-coated zinc plate could form an image, and he was able to transfer an image to paper on October 22, 1938. Carlson's patent experience paid off with issuance of US Patent No. 2,297,691, "electrophotography," on October 6, 1942.[1]

Figure ten from US Patent No. 2,297,691

Fig. 10 from Chester Carlson's Xerography patent.

Carlson's Xerography patent has 27 claims, the first of which reads as follows.

"The method of making a photographic reproduction which comprises applying a uniform layer of photoconductive insulating material to a plane conductive backing, developing a strong electrostatic charge on the surface of said layer by rubbing said surface, exposing the layer to a light image whereby to render the illuminated areas thereof sufficiently conductive to drain off a substantial proportion of said charge to said conductive backing, then bringing a fine dust into contact with the surface whereby to form an electro-static dust deposit on the areas of said surface remaining charged after the exposure, then blowing off excess dust not electrostatically held on said surface, whereby a dust image will be produced in which the dark areas of the original image will be reproduced as dust deposit areas."

(Via Google Patents.[1])


PARC invented laser printing in 1971, and the ethernet in 1975. Its lost opportunity centers around its 1973 creation of the Alto computer. This computer was the first with a graphical user interface, a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get text editor, icons, windows and pop-up menus. In the midst of all this PARC activity was Larry Tesler, who was born on April 24, 1945, in the Bronx, and died on February 16, 2020, at age 74.[2] The Alto was famously Steve Jobs' inspiration for Apple's Lisa and Macintosh computers. It was Tesler who demonstrated the Xerox Alto to Steve Jobs in 1979.[3]

Douglas Fairbairn, a colleague of Tesler at PARC, is quoted by the IEEE Spectrum as saying,
"Larry generated a lot of the basic ideas for the work we were doing... But he doesn’t have a big ego, so his name didn’t get attached to things. He wasn't the one guy who did one big thing you’ll remember him for; he was a collaborator on many things."[3]

As for most successful people, Tesler's career interest started in childhood, when he was very interested in mathematics. Since he had a friendly personality, a school guidance counselor suggested that he might enjoy a career as a Certified Public Accountant.[3] That same guidance counselor would likewise have said that my problem-solving skill and interest in electronics would have made me an excellent television repairman. Tesler attended the Bronx High School of Science, noted for many famous alumni, where a teacher remarked that a method the young Tesler had devised to generate prime numbers could be done by a computer, and another student told him that Columbia University had a program in which high school students could access a computer.

Tesler went on to earn his B.S. degree in mathematics at Stanford University (Stanford, CA) in 1965, and he tried his hand at computer consulting, eventually returning to Stanford to work in its Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.[3] While the AI work was interesting, Tesler realized that it would take decades for it to become practical, and he moved to an Oregon commune with his 5-year old daughter.[3] There were no employment opportunities in Oregon, so Tesler moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he would eventually join Xerox PARC. Another Stanford AI Lab alumnus, Alan Kay, had joined PARC, and he held Tesler in high regard.[3]

His first offer from Xerox was in its On-Line Office System Group, but Tesler was interested in personal computers, so he declined. In 1973, however, PARC was developing the Alto, so Tesler became part of Alan Kay's Learning Research Group.[3] Inspired by a salesman who who told him that "It’s really hard to sell this stuff, the software is just so unfriendly," Tesler starting thinking about user-friendly interfaces.[3] He realized that most users didn't want to spend time learning all the commands that were needed to do the simplest things on a computer, such as editing a document.[3] In the design of a user-friendly interface, Tesler enlisted the aid of a newly hired secretary, Sylvia Adams, to explain how she created documents on a typewriter.[3]

A Xerox Alto terminal

A Xerox Alto terminal.

While this would be the standard footprint for one of today's desktop computers, these are just the user's input-output devices.

Since computing was still primitive at that time, all the computing power resided in a much larger piece of hardware connected to thekeyboard, mouse, and monitor.

(Cropped Wikimedia Commons image.)


Tesler's document creation and editing program, Gypsy, incorporated the now familiar functions of copy-and-paste, search, selection of text using a mouse, file click-to-open, and what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) printing.[3] Tesler coined the WYSIWYG phrase.[3] Although used internally by Xerox at its Ginn and Company book publishing subsidiary, Gypsy was never commercialized, so it was another lost opportunity for Xerox.[3] Tesler and some other PARC employees eventually joined Apple Computer after Steve Jobs' visit. Tesler, as quoted by the IEEE Spectrum, said,
"The questions the Apple people were asking totally blew me away... They were the kind of questions Xerox executives should have been asking but didn't. They asked: 'Why don't the windows refresh automatically? Why did you do the menus this way? You guys are sitting on a gold mine here. Why aren't you making this a product?'"[3]

Tesler remained at PARC until after his scheduled talk at the 1980 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) SIGGRAPH conference.[3] The reason for this is that the talk would remove trade secret status from some word-processing work at PARC, so he could work on similar technology at Apple without any legal problems.[3] Tesler was key to the Lisa development;[3] but, one failing, in my estimation, was his arguing for a one-button mouse. I always hated using my mother's Macintosh because of the one-button mouse. Lisa, however, was an expensive system, and only 30,000 were sold in its two year production run.[3] I actually saw a newly purchased Lisa early in my corporate research career, not in our laboratory building, but at the executive suite.

Larry Tresler in 2007

Larry Tesler in 2007.

Most news articles about Tesler's death highlight the copy-and-paste commands that he pioneered.[2] Most people access copy and paste through a menu obtained by right-clicking their mouse.

Most of the time, I use the keyboard shortcuts of Control-C (ctrl-C) for copy, and Control-V (ctrl-V) for paste. Using ctrl-C for copy makes sense (although it's the terminate command in a terminal session), but why ctrl-V and not Control-P (ctrl-P) for paste?

Ctrl-P is often used as the print command; and, in a true Wikipedia citation needed explanation, ctrl-V was used instead since V is near C on a QWERTY keyboard.

(Modified Wikimedia Commons image from the Yahoo! Blog. Click for larger image.)


Tesler became vice president of the Apple Advanced Technology Group in 1986, a group that employed about 200 people, that assisted in development of the Macintosh II.[3] In 1990, in what Tesler called the worst decision of his career, he decided against a handheld Mac and in favor of the Newton, a handheld computer that was not Mac-compatible.[3] His first order of business was to reduce the sale price of the Newton from $7000 to $1000, and he found a way to do this by using a reduced instruction set (RISC) computing chip. To that end, Apple invested in newly created Advanced RISC Machines Ltd.[3]

Among Newton's problems was its flawed handwriting recognition, which is something that my Palm Zire 31 with its Graffiti 2 character recognition did very well a few years later. The Newton handheld computer was a market failure, and Tesler remain at Apple for four additional years as chief scientist.[3] He left Apple in 1997 after disbanding his Advanced Technology Group, later working at Amazon and Yahoo!.[3]

References:

  1. Chester F. Carlson, "electrophotography," US Patent No. 2,297,691 (October, 1942).
  2. Scott Simon, "Remembering The Pioneer Behind Your Computer's Cut, Copy And Paste Functions, NPR Weekend Edition Saturday, February 22, 2020.
  3. Tekla S. Perry, "Of Modes and Men - Cut-and-paste, the one-button mouse, WYSIWIG desktop publishing - these are just a few of the user interface innovations pioneered by Larry Tesler," IEEE Spectrum, August 1, 2005.

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