Xerox Alto.. the Grandpa of Modern Computing

Designed in 1972 and released in March 1973, Xerox Alto is a revolutionary hardware built by Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). The innovations brought by Alto included the first-ever Graphical User Interface, LAN, optical mouse, and high-res bitmapped display. The Alto was also the first computer to use a laser printer, another invention by Xerox. The Xerox Alto wasn’t a commercial computer, it was a research prototype used by universities and the Xerox PARC.

  • 120 Alto I and 2,000 Alto II were ever produced (universities used 500 machines)
  • In 1981, the Xerox Star was released, a workstation that commercialized most Xerox PARC innovations (A Xerox Star with a laser printer cost $100K or $325,000 in today’s money)


According to the Xerox Alto's hardware manual, a standard Alto system included:

  • CPU built by using multiple SSI/MSI integrated circuits
  • Processor controlling the disk and display (clocked at 5.88 MHz)
  • 64K (16 bit) of 850ns semiconductor memory (total memory 96-512 KB)
  • 875-line television monitor (606x808 point display), refreshed at 30 frames per second
  • Alto Executive (Exec) operating system
  • 64-key keyboard
  • 3-button mechanical mouse (later replaced by a ball mouse)
  • Diablo Model 31/44 disk file (typical 2.5/10 MB capacity)
  • Ethernet interface (3 Mbps serial communications line)


Computing InnovationsXerox Alto Major Innovations

  • The first-ever Personal Computer
  • The first-ever (GUI) Graphical User Interface
  • The first-ever optical mouse, and later ball mouse
  • The first-ever high-resolution bitmapped display
  • The first-ever computer to use LAN/Ethernet (Ethernet was also invented by Xerox)
  • The first-ever high-quality DTP (desktop publishing) system
  • The first-ever text editor generating WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), in 1974
  • The first computer to use a laser printer
  • One of the first LAN-based video games (Alto Trek by Gene Ball)

Steve Jobs deal with Xerox

In 1979, Steve Jobs visited the Xerox PARC and later made a deal with Xerox to use many of their innovations in Apple’s computer products. Apple’s engineers visited the Xerox PARC twice. Many Xerox innovations such as the bitmapped display, mouse-driven GUI,  high-quality fonts, and the Ethernet were later met in Apple Lisa and Apple Macintosh.


The Decisive Role of Xerox PARC in Computing

The Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) gave birth to modern computing. Just take a glance at some of their notorious inventions:

  • The first personal computer (1973)
  • GUI with windows and icons (1973)
  • Laser printer (1969)
  • Lan/Ethernet (1973)
  • Bravo Editor, the first WYSIWYG program (1974)
  • The first high-quality fonts with ligatures
  • Euclid and other programming languages

Pinball on Xerox Alto


Xerox Alto Software (Applications & Games)

Alto’s programs used icons and graphical menus. The first programs were programmed in the BCPL language, later in Mesa. The first program was called “Hello World” (which reminds me of something !).

  • Bravo & Gypsy (WYSIWYG word processors)
  • Markup and Draw (bitmapped graphical editors)
  • Sil (vector graphics editor for integrated circuits and PCBs)
  • Laurel & Hardy (Network Email Clients)
  • About 10 Games (Chess, Othello, Pinball, the LAN-based Alto Trek, and more)


■ Xerox Alto -The Birth of Modern Computing

G.P. for (c) 2022




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