PARC celebrates its 40 years of Silicon Valley innovation

Founded in 1970, the former Xerox PARC was spun off as a wholly owned division of the printing giant in 2002. On Thursday, the R&D powerhouse that invented laser printing, Ethernet networking, and the GUI celebrated its four decades of innovation.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet networking, speaks at the PARC 40th anniversary celebration on Thursday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

PALO ALTO, California--It's hard to believe, but PARC is 40.

Known for years as Xerox PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center is now a wholly owned Xerox spin-off working for a wide variety of corporate clients after years of doing world-class R&D exclusively for the copier giant.

And on Thursday, with dozens of the research institution's alumni on hand, PARC threw itself a 40th birthday party.

For those not familiar with its accomplishments, PARC may best be remembered for its roles as the birthplace of the laser printer, the graphical user interface, Ethernet networking, and more. The story of Steve Jobs visiting PARC and not long after incorporating the GUI he saw there into the Macintosh is the stuff of Silicon Valley legend.

To celebrate completing its four decades, PARC invited the alumni, as well as the press and many other fans of the center's storied work, for a series of panel discussions about that famous history.

Starting with "Seeding the Valley: Distinguished alumni" and continuing on to "Innovation in action: Across the customer spectrum" and "The talent factor: Employee perspectives," the mostly white-haired gathering reminisced about some of the institution's biggest achievements, its most funny moments, and the "secret sauce" that has made it one of the most respected R&D shops in the world of technology.

A copy of the paper on Ethernet networking that Bob Metcalfe wrote with David Boggs hangs on the wall at PARC. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Most people who spoke up on the topic seemed to agree that the secret sauce that made PARC so successful was its highly talented employees. But one comment stood out as perhaps the most astute: "None of us got into research...without thinking we could disrupt the world," said David Douglas, the director of new technology development at Oracle Microelectronics and a PARC customer.

Perhaps the PARC alumnus most mentioned during the panels was John Seely Brown, or JSB, as he's known throughout the world of technology. Formerly the chief scientist at Xerox and the director of PARC, Brown was clearly a major figure in the institution's history, as nearly every story seemed to include him somehow. He was also in attendance, and the large smile he was flashing seemed to indicate that the man who currently calls himself the Chief of Confusion--he's a well-respected adviser to many in Silicon Valley and beyond--was having a good time.

Another well-respected alumnus on hand was Bob Metcalfe, who is probably best-known as the inventor of Ethernet networking but who also was the founder of 3Com.

Metcalfe recalled his early days at PARC and the fact that after feeling an entrepreneurial "itch" he had left the center after about three years. And then, when he returned a few months later and resumed his tenure there, he was awarded a five years of service pin by someone who didn't realize he'd left for a while. When the error was discovered, he was asked for the return of the pin, only to get to keep it when a colleague lobbied on his behalf, pointing out that his departure was due to "temporary insanity."

These days, eight years after its 2002 spin-off, PARC is no longer serving Xerox exclusively but is still very much in the middle of the future of technology. According to Tamara St. Claire, PARC's vice president of global business development, the research hub is deep into clean tech, biomedical engineering, and natural language processing, among others, and counts among its clients Microsoft, Dai Nippon Printing, Sun/Oracle, Samsung, NEC, and Fujitsu. Many of its other high-profile clients prefer to keep their relationship with PARC secret so as not to tip of competitors, St. Claire said.

Focus and freedom
What may best set PARC apart from its group of august corporate R&D lab competitors, St. Claire and others have pointed out, is that it was started with the idea of giving its employees an unprecedented degree of intellectual freedom. This, the idea went, would allow the researchers to focus on solving the problems at hand.

One of the original Xerox PARC brochures, hanging on the wall at the famous research and development institution. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

To Barney Pell, who is search strategist and evangelist at Microsoft, that unusual, non-bottom-line-thinking focus and freedom may best be summed up by PARC's long-term dedication to solving problems related to natural language processing.

PARC was "the one group in the world that [was] able to work on the problem (natural language) for 30 years. Incredible. It's this amazing long-term vision that set this possibility up."

Correction 12:16 p.m. PDT September 24: This story initially misstated the status of Oracle as a customer. It is a current customer.