SAN JOSE, Calif. An engineer who helped develop a seminal prototype of the personal computer was recognized for his work Tuesday (March 9) even as he hammers away on the next big thing in computing—a parallel programming model for tomorrow's many-core processors.
Charles Thacker won the 2009 A.M. Turing Award for his work in the early 1970's on the Xerox PARC Alto, a forerunner of the Apple Macintosh and IBM PC. Thacker, now a Microsoft researcher, is testing out parallel programming concepts on a multi-core FPGA development system he designed.
| Chuck Thacker|
Technical Fellow, Microsoft
Thacker was cited for his contributions to Ethernet as well as his work on an early multiprocessor workstation and the prototype for the tablet PC. The Turing Award is considered akin to a Nobel Prize in computing, and comes with a $250,000 prize, with financial support provided by Intel Corp. and Google Inc.
A fellow Microsoft researcher and Turing Award winner Butler Lampson described Thacker as "an engineer's engineer" in a nominating letter. "His skills span the full range, from analog-circuit and power-supply design through logic design, processor and network architecture, system software, languages, and applications as varied as CAD and electronic books, all the way to user-interface design," wrote Lampson.
Microsoft posted online a feature story on Thacker's career. We talked with him briefly from his office at Microsoft Research in Mountain View.
EE Times: What was it like working on the Alto at Xerox PARC?
Thacker: That period was the most intensely creative in my life. A lot of things came together--the entire system of the Alto computer, the Ethernet network, the laser printer, the file systems and more--all that was developed over a five-year period.
EET: Why wasn't Xerox able to commercialize the Alto?
Thacker: It was before its time. Xerox made a tremendous amount of money based on the work at PARC, primarily based on the laser printer which was worth several billion dollars to the company.
It took large scale integration for computing to take off, and we didn't have that, so the things we built were not economically viable. We had Altos in the Carter White House, but they were simply too expensive for ordinary office workers at about $12,000—which was a lot of money then.
At that time, DRAM had just fallen below a tenth of a cent per bit. Every pixel in the Alto had a tenth of a cent of memory behind it, and we had a lots of pixels. The rest was built out of several printed circuit boards. It took another decade before Intel produced a processor on a chip.