- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Four former Xerox Corp. engineers yesterday received a prize for pioneering personal computer networks 30 years ago.

The Charles Stark Draper Prize, a $500,000 annual award presented by the National Academy of Engineering, was given to Alan C. Kay, Butler W. Lampson, Robert W. Taylor and Charles P. Thacker for the technological achievement of their research.

“The creation of the first practical networked personal computer is a story that’s dramatically affected all of us, but which few really know about it,” said William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, a national trade association.

“These four prize recipients were the indispensable core of an amazing group of engineering minds that redefined the nature and purpose of computing,” Mr. Wulf said in a prepared statement.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the four engineers from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center worked on the Alto personal computer, one of the first practical networked personal computers, which became operational in 1973.

The desktop Alto had a three-button mouse, disk drives, and a graphic user interface that included menus and icons, making it the first model of the personal computers now used by millions around the world.

Alto completely changed the computer culture, said Mr. Kay, one of the designers of the Alto software and currently senior fellow at Hewlett Packard Labs.

“The last 20 years have been a period of consolidation,” he said during a news conference at the National Press Club.

Mr. Taylor, who ran the Palo Alto laboratory from 1970 to 1983, said that the dream shared by his team was that “the value of closely connecting people and their interests could dwarf the value of computing only for arithmetic.”

“The result is arguably one of the greatest and most beneficial engineering innovations of the 20th century along with the automobile, airplane, and television,” he said in a press release.

According to Mr. Lampson, now an engineer at Microsoft Corp., said his long-term challenge would be to use computers to reduce traffic highway deaths to zero by making cars drive by themselves.

Mr. Thacker said his challenge would be to give every child a computer and use technology to improve education.

Since its creation in 1989, the Charles Stark Draper Prize has awarded engineering achievements such as the communication satellite technology in 1995, fiber optics in 1999, the foundations of the Internet in 2001 and the Global Positioning System last year.

Frank S. Barnes was also awarded yesterday by the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for the Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program he created 30 years ago at the University of Colorado to increase the diversity of skills students in engineering receive during their education.

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