Tracing the origins of the Macintosh

The next generation of Apple computers was already under way in 1979 when a visit to Xerox PARC changed Steve Jobs -- and Apple -- forever.

Dan Farber
7 min read
Precursors to the Macintosh: the Xerox Alto (left) and the Xerox Star. The Alto was the first relatively small computer to include a mouse, removable storage, networking, a graphical user interface and WYSIWYG printing. Computer History Museum

This article is part of a CNET special report on the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh, looking at the beginnings of Apple's landmark machine and its impact over the last three decades.

In 1979, Apple was working on a successor to the Apple II called the Lisa. But the product team hadn't yet settled on implementing a graphical user interface. The Macintosh at that point was a research project with four people, and wasn't even on Steve Jobs' radar. It was a visit by Jobs to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center late in 1979 that set Apple on a new course that would revolutionize personal computing.

During a couple of visits to Xerox PARC, Jobs and a few other Apple employees got to see the Xerox's Alto computer in action. This was an eye-opener. The Alto computer came with with icons, windows, folders, a mouse, pop-up menus, WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editor, Ethernet-based local networking, and network-based printing and games. The concept of "cut, copy and paste," was also part of the demonstration as well as the Smalltalk programming environment.

Steve Jobs and other Apple people were inspired by seeing Smalltalk running on Xerox Alto in late 1979. Smalltalk had an object-oriented programming model, with overlapping windows and other features that came to define the graphical user interface. Computer History Museum

"Steve was very excited and was pacing around the room, and occasionally looking at the screen," said former Xerox PARC and Apple computer scientist Larry Tesler. He recalled Jobs' reaction as he led them on the product tour. "You are sitting on a goldmine. Why aren't you doing something with this technology...you could change this world.' It was clear to him that Xerox was never going to do the kind of revolution things he was envisioning." (Tesler was so impressed by Jobs that he went to work at Apple the following year to manage the Lisa applications team.)

The myriad technologies on display constituted a revelation for Jobs, who later told biographer Walter Isaacson that "it was like a veil being lifted from my eyes. I could see what the future of computing was destined to be."

At this stage the nascent Macintosh project was headed by Jef Raskin, who came up with the product name as well as the idea to create a low-cost personal computer. He would later hire Bill Atkinson, Bud Tribble, Joanna Hoffman, Burrell Smith and other key members of the Macintosh team. By January 1981, after being relieved of oversight for the Lisa, Jobs took over the Macintosh project. The rest is history.

"The idea that you would take a significant amount of computing resource to make the user interface easier to use probably would not have become a popular idea, at least in the 1980s, if it weren't for the Mac," Tesler said in an interview with CNET.

Larry Tesler talking about the origins of the Macintosh in 1985 and the future of computing technology. At that time he predicted that information in corporate databases could be downloaded into personal computers, people could have routine work done by machines, and agents in machines would represent users in transactions. Computer Chronicles

The Macintosh gets credit for popularizing the graphical user interface, but Apple and Jobs have been accused of stealing the core ideas underlying the Macintosh from Xerox PARC.

Bill Atkinson, who wrote MacPaint, the Quickdraw graphics routines and came up with the pull-down menu implementation, was among the handful of Apple employees who accompanied Jobs to Xerox PARC. 

"We saw the Bravo text editor and Smalltalk. I think that's all we saw running. A lot of people will think, 'Oh, Apple went to Xerox PARC and just stole everything they saw.' It's not true. We over many courses of evolution evolved a user interface. I think what we got mostly from Xerox PARC was an inspiration and a determination. Yes, we're going to do it graphically. We already had a graphic bitmap. We already had overlapping windows, but we weren't totally committed to that."

MacWrite was shipped with the 128K Macintosh, and redefined the concept of a word processor in a mass market computer. Apple

"In terms of the user interface, there were a lot of things that were developed for the Mac. Some of them came from the Lisa. A couple of them even came from Xerox PARC. But most of them really originated on the Mac, that are still around today," Tesler said. He continued:

The ones that even hark back to the '70s at PARC, are cut, copy, paste, undo, and the idea of overlapping windows. There really wasn't much use of icons. Xerox was aware of icons. We had a few icons in some of our applications, but it wasn't thought of as a fundamental thing until the Xerox Star, which came out during the development of the Lisa. Even then, the icons were limited in their application. They were used primarily for folder icons and document icons, and not much else. The Mac was the place that really had icons blossom. There were scroll bars already on some of the Xerox products, but they didn't work exactly the same way as on the Mac. The Mac simplified the scroll bars.

The Macintosh also introduced dragging icons from one place to another on the screen and refined WYSIWYG.

Apple's Lisa computer shipped in 1983, cost nearly $10,000 and didn't sell well. The 128K Macintosh, at $2,495, came into the possession of more than 70,000 buyers in its first three months. Apple

Bruce Horn, who wrote some of the core Macintosh system software, worked at Xerox PARC as a teenager and through college. He was responsible for the Finder, the Macintosh file manager with icons and folders that persists to this day. In an article on Folklore.org, a site about the early history of the Macintosh, Horn wrote:

Drag-and-drop file manipulation came from the Mac group, along with many other unique concepts: resources and dual-fork files for storing layout and international information apart from code; definition procedures; drag-and-drop system extension and configuration; types and creators for files; direct manipulation editing of document, disk, and application names; redundant typed data for the clipboard; multiple views of the file system; desk accessories; and control panels, among others. The Lisa group invented some fundamental concepts as well: pull down menus, the imaging and windowing models based on QuickDraw, the clipboard, and cleanly internationalizable software.

One of the lasting legacies of the Macintosh was the constraints it placed on software developers, requiring uniformity of the interface from application to application. "A lot of application developers resented it," Tesler said. "They didn't want Apple telling them what the user interface should be. They thought they could do better, and maybe they could have done better, but it was very important to Apple that if you learn one application you basically had done most of the learning to learn them all."

That tradition lives on in the nearly one billion apps for Apple's iPhone. And so does the tradition of taking the best ideas, wherever they originate, and running with them. Apple didn't invent the touch-screen tablet or cell phone but it created devices that redefined the categories.

As Jobs once said, "Picasso had a saying -- good artists copy, great artists steal -- and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas." Of course, that didn't stop Xerox from unsuccessfully suing Apple for unlawful use of its copyrights or Apple suing Microsoft over similarities of Windows to the Macintosh and Lisa. More recently Jobs declared war against Google's Android mobile operating system, resulting in a flurry of suits against Samsung Samsung and others who dared to copy ideas expressed in its products.

Good and great artists are always copying, or stealing, from each other.

In a 1995 interview with the Smithsonian, Jobs talked about the origins of the artistry that went into creating the Macintosh. It's about unleashing creative people who see what others can't see:

I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don't have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that.

If you study these people a little bit more what you'll find is that in this particular time, in the 70's and the 80's, the best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. Almost all of them were musicians. A lot of them were poets on the side. They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents.

The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter. Many of the people were introspective, inward people who expressed how they felt about other people or the rest of humanity in general into their work, work that other people would use. People put a lot of love into these products, and a lot of expression of their appreciation came to these things. It's hard to explain.

What Apple's artists, who impressively copy or steal and also invent, have consistently been able to do is create products that others want to copy or steal. As long as that holds true, the company will continue to be a brand that commands respect and attracts loyal users.