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PARC founder George Pake dies

George Pake, the scientist who set up Xerox's fabled Palo Alto Research Center and so helped pioneer research into Ethernet and other key technologies, dies at 79.

George Pake, the scientist who founded Xerox's fabled Palo Alto Research Center, died after a long illness last week, less than a month shy of his 80th birthday.

Pake led the research lab from its inception in 1970 until 1978, then moved on to oversee Xerox's corporate research from 1978 until 1986. PARC helped pioneer research into many key technologies, including laser printing, Ethernet, graphical user interfaces and client-server computing.

"George was really the person who brought industrial research and innovation on a large scale to Silicon Valley by establishing PARC out here," said Kris Halvorsen, who worked at the lab in the early 1980s and is now a vice president and researcher at HP Labs.

Bob Spinrad, Xerox's head of West Coast engineering when PARC was founded, said it was good time to set up shop in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tough economic times forced the closure of Berkeley Computer and left a number of very talented engineers available for the company to hire--luminaries like Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson.

Pake was the right man for the job to oversee the effort, Spinrad said.

"He knew what you had to do was get the very best people and let them go follow their ideas," said Spinrad, who succeeded Pake as director at PARC in 1978.

Halvorsen said Pake had a quiet but persuasive way that helped set the tone for PARC and paved the way for its culture of inventiveness.

"I think everyone who worked for George, both directly and indirectly, revered him," Halvorsen said.

While PARC has become closely associated with Silicon Valley, Xerox considered other places for the laboratories before deciding on Palo Alto. The company also looked at spots near Yale University and Princeton University as well as a location in Los Angeles, Spinrad said. A different choice might have changed the history of Silicon Valley.

"I think things might have been very different," Halvorsen said.

In addition to his efforts at Xerox, Pake was known for the work he did while earning his doctorate degree at Harvard University in the 1940s. His doctoral thesis was on a phenomenon involving the interaction of two closely spaced nuclear magnets--a theory that later became known as "Pake doublets." That work in magnetics helped later researchers develop magnetic resonance imaging--a widespread technique for medical diagnosis. Prior to joining Xerox, Pake served as Provost of Washington University in St. Louis, Miss.

After his retirement from Xerox in 1986, Pake started the Institute for Research on Learning, a group that explored learning as a fundamentally social activity. Pake worked on projects that looked at ways of teaching math and science in a hands-on way.

Pake was awarded the National Medal of Science by former president Ronald Reagan in 1987. Born in Jeffersonville, Ohio, in 1924, Pake is survived by his wife and four children.