Alan Kay: The Father Of Personal Computers

3 min read

He pioneered many ideas at the root of contemporary object-oriented programming languages, led the team that developed Smalltalk, and made fundamental contributions to personal computing. Today’s blog is all about the former child prodigy and one of the best programmers ever, Alan Kay.

Early Life

Alan Curtis Kay was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on May 17, 1940, to musician mother and his father designed arm and leg prostheses. Kay grew up in a habitat of art, literature, and science. By the age of three, he completed about 150 books before starting school. After moving to New York City, he enrolled in Brooklyn Technical High School.

Life in the Air Force

Alan Kay also known as the father of “personal computer” .

He joined college but left before graduation to join the air force. Kay discovered computers there and passed an aptitude test to become an IBM 1401 programmer. He worked with several different machines, including the Burroughs B500. With his newly gained experience from the air force, Kay discovered that a program can be designed with procedures when data representation is not specified. This idea supported the later development of object-oriented programming languages.

After the air force, Kay returned to the University of Colorado. In 1966, finished his undergraduate degree in mathematics and molecular biology from the University of Colorado. With the influence of his mother, who taught him to play, he was also a jazz guitarist. 

He completed his MS in Electrical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Computer Science in 1969 from the University of Utah

ARPA Research

With his computer science research financed by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Kay contributed to ARPA research and projects such as time-sharing the ARPAnet, the Internet’s forerunner.

At the University of Utah, Kay teamed up with Edward Cheadle, who was working on designing minicomputers for engineers. They designed “FLEX” with sharp graphics and windowing features and named it “personal computer.”

While working on FLEX, Kay learned about Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of interactive computing designed to support collaborative workgroups. Influenced by Engelbart’s vision, Kay adopted graphical interfaces, hypertext, and the mouse. Other influences were JOSS, GRAIL, Understanding Media, Logo, and flat-panel screen displays.

With his newfound technologies and ideas, Kay came up with a cardboard tablet-style personal computer. It also contained a flat-panel display screen and a pen which was later called a stylus.

Though the technology at that time failed to capture Kay’s vision for the new age tablet, he knew from Moore’s law a personal computing device was possible. He finished his doctorate in 1969 with his thesis named “Reactive Engine” and simultaneously working on the FLEX project.

Working on Future Computers

Kay became a researcher at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and developed programming languages. He began to think of a future with book-sized computers. Influenced by the Logo project, he mainly wanted to see how children would use them and made sketches of “KiddieKomputers.” These ideas were later integrated into the design of the Alto computer.

Kay joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1971. PARC came in 1970 to do long-term research for “the office of the future.” 

Kay joined The Learning Research Group, and established the following goals:

1. Prove how small computers could be used in different subject areas;

2. Reduce the size of computers to help expand the user’s visual and auditory skills;

3. Let children understand computer processes by spending time learning about computers and experiment personally

4. Children’s unexpected uses of the computer and its software should be reported.

Dynabook and the SmallTalk

Dr. Alan Kay won the Kyoto Prize in 2004 for “creation of the concept of modern personal computing and outstanding contribution to its realization.” 

The creative force at Xerox PARC, Kay, developed tools that transformed computers into a new primary communication approach. His ideology was,

“the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” 

Kay’s popularity lay in inventing ideas that were for the future. His visionary concepts also include the Dynabook, a portable electronic computer like a notebook with a touch-sensitive screen and a keyboard. Laptops, notebook computers, and tablets roots in the early concepts of the Dynabook.

Alan chose the name “Dynabook,” because computers produce dynamic representations of information rather than static book pages.

Kay and his team soon realized a method for interacting will be required with the new computer medium. To help with this, his lab created graphical interfaces and the SmallTalk programming language.

Initially designed as a graphical programming language, SmallTalk soon became a complete integrated programming environment. Equipped with a debugger, object-oriented virtual memory, an editor, screen management, and user interface, SmallTalk became the first dynamic object-oriented programming language. 

SmallTalk ran on the Alto computer, envisioned and designed by Turing Award recipients Butler Lampson and Charles P. Thacker. The Alto was a step toward small, powerful personal computers, and it was considered an interim Dynabook.

Life after leaving Xerox PARC

Leaving Xerox PARC in the early 1980s, Alan Kay moved to Los Angeles and worked for Atari before joining Apple Computer. With his research team, he developed Squeak, an open-source Smalltalk language. In 1997, Disney’s Imagineering division accepted his squad, and he continued his work on Squeak. 

In 2002, he established Viewpoints Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting educational media for children.

Kay also worked in the position of Senior Fellow at Hewlett-Packard until 2005. He taught at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, the University of California, Los Angeles, the Kyoto University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Significant Contributions

Alan Kay is now popularly known as the “father of personal computers” because he envisioned a small computing system in the 1970s when the technology lacked the advancement to make it happen. Inspired by his concepts about learning and children, ‘The One Laptop per Child’ program and the ‘Children’s Machine’ came into action. 

Alan Kay’s most significant contribution to computer science is his commitment to turn the computer into a dynamic personal medium. Even today, he continues to explore ways in which computers can be accessible to children.

Also watch: Samaira Mehta: 11 year old coder

Also read: William Rowan Hamilton: From Prodigy in Language to Prodigy in Mathematics

Get to Know about the Latest Child Prodigies!

Subscribe to our Newsletter