Dealers of Lightning

Dealers of Lightning (2000) by Michael Hiltzik is an outstanding look at Xerox PARC. In terms of books on the history of technology it is up there with the excellent Triumph of the Nerds by Robert X Cringely about the history of the early PC industry.
PARC the Palo Alto Research Laboratory was started by Xerox in the early 1970s. The best known PARC development, the Alto was the first machine produced in numbers that featured a GUI. It took the research of Douglas Englebart who developed the mouse and the first GUI and added networking and laser printers to it. In short PARC essentially developed the computing infrastructure for the modern world. It’s a staggering record.
The book looks at how Jack Goldman, the head of R & D at Xerox hired people who would form an amazing group under Bob Taylor, a remarkable research head who had, prior to his work at PARC, got funding for the DARPA net that eventually became the internet. Taylor had little technical skill himself but was able to select incredibly talented people and get them to work together. He had a few failures, PARC also had developments in color video that were incredible but which Taylor saw little use for in his vision of the future office.
Dealers of Lightning also looks at the way Xerox failed to get all the value it could have out of PARC. Here Hiltzik provides a nuanced view, pointing out that bringing to market technologies is extremely challenging and the PC market was very dynamic. He also points out that the laser printer did very well for PARC.
Dealers of Lightning is very much worth reading for anyone interested in technology. It’s a startling look at an incredible lab that developed technology that has altered the world.


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