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Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

4.17  ·  Rating Details  ·  803 Ratings  ·  71 Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
March 1999

While Gates, Jobs, and the other big boys of Silicon Valley are basking in the glory of the information age, renowned Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik reveals how, back in the early '70s, a group of inventors at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) blazed the trail for all of today's indispensable technology from the P
Paperback, 480 pages
Published April 5th 2000 by HarperBusiness (first published March 1st 1999)
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Jun 24, 2011 Nate rated it it was amazing
Riveting read. Not as technical as I'd like - though I have yet to read any computer book that is. Mostly it's straight up porn for anyone who loves working with computers. PARC was one hell of a lab back in the day.
The most interesting part about this is seeing what really happened with Xerox and the first GUI PCs. It's not that they let the opportunity slip through their fingers, they were never the right company to produce an OS in the first place.
Still, it worked out well for virtually all
Jul 22, 2015 Elen rated it really liked it
rating for entertainment alone -- i don't rly agree with a lot of the overarching points made here but god i love reading about old computers.
Mar 03, 2014 Joe rated it really liked it
A fascinating account of the invention of the personal computer at a Xerox research facility in the 1970s. Hiltzik's book explains how over the course of ten years some of the world's foremost computer scientists invented almost every feature that we have come to associate with personal computing--overlapping windows, "what you see is what you get" word processing, the desktop, high speed printing, connection to an Ethernet, point and click technology, the ubiquity of the mouse, and the use of i ...more
Feb 26, 2013 Goku rated it it was amazing
Xerox PARC is legendary as the home of some of the most brilliant minds in the history of computing. It played a pivotal role in the creation of (among other things) personal computers, GUIs, and the internet. It's also emblematic of the inability of large corporations to recognise and foster innovation. This book brilliantly captures the personalities of PARC, their triumphs, frustrations and clashes, with each other and with the Xerox suits. There's a good balance here in terms of attention to ...more
Oct 02, 2014 Nelson rated it it was amazing
Read this book and you will discover that many of the things that Steve Jobs used the MAC (mouse and distribute applications across several windows) were originally conceived at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) Xerox.
Scott Holstad
Mar 03, 2015 Scott Holstad rated it it was amazing
I’ve heard of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) for years now and of its importance, but this book really drove home just what a critical place PARC was for the development of the personal computer. It was an excellent, excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Back in the mid-60s, Xerox decided they wanted to compete with IBM and AT&T by developing their own research labs in the hopes of winning prestige and a possible Nobel or two, just like Bell Labs did. They set PARC up with a virtua
Tom Schulte
It was helpful to read this relatively shortly after Steve Jobs. That biography rather confirmed the supposition (urban legend?) in my mind that Apple UI was stolen nonchalantly by Jobs and was confirmation of ineptly managed PARC. This book goes far to remind me that for the laser printer along Xerox has effected world-changing innovation and that the unpredictability of the PC market at the time meant few really knew what was going to work and why. Rather similar to this, this 1999 work puts f ...more
Dec 29, 2014 Diogo rated it liked it
The book was great as far as the sheer amount of information provided, however, sometimes the information was out of context and the people introduced didn't have enough background to be able to form a story line and follow through the events.

Leaving a side the minor issues with the editing process this book shed some light on the events leading the creation of the personal computer and some myths regarding PARC and how Apple and Microsoft might have stolen some its technology.

Also the author br
Mar 19, 2012 Peter rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Fascinating history of PARC and the people who made it the world's leading computer science research center in the 1970s. Does not specifically unpack the factors that made PARC excel, but contains enough information about its successes to draw broader lessons about creating conditions conducive to breakthrough R&D.

- Hire the best people
- Give them a long leash
- Force them to interact

Ethernet is a good example -- Bob Metcalfe was stringing coaxial cable through the PARC basement when he bu
Mar 19, 2013 Pete rated it really liked it
Shelves: tech, nonfiction
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 mou
Feb 03, 2011 Liam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"The theory of second systems was formulated by an IBM executive named Frederick Brooks, whose career supervising large-scale software teams taught him that designers of computer systems tend to build into their second projects all the pet features that tight finances or short deadlines forced them to leave out of their first. The result is an overgrown, inefficient monstrosity that rarely works as expected. As he put it in his pithy masterpiece, The Mythical Man-Month: 'The second system is the ...more
Jonas Andersson
Jan 27, 2011 Jonas Andersson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Half business history, half computer history: It reduces to a story of a company that lost out on owning most of the "parts" that come in todays standard computer. Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) was the place to be if you wanted to make something cool in the 1970's. It seems bizarre, the idea of letting researchers invent whatever they wanted with a virtually unlimited budget. But their inventions were almost never patented or incorporated into Xerox products; because Xerox sold copiers ...more
May 26, 2015 Bart-Jan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bio-s-companies
One of the best company bio's I've ever read. Nearly everything we use today in the personal computer industry has originated from the minds of the XEROX PARC team during the 70s and early 80s. Many of them have started or joined very successful industry leaders. A fascinating story of a unique team in a unique setting. And an interesting account of how XEROX has missed the opportunity of becoming one of the leading organizations in the computer industry. Highly recommended.
Ian Billick
Oct 25, 2014 Ian Billick rated it really liked it
I enjoyed it primarily because I'm interested in scientific institutions. It also provides insight into what was going on in the tech industry in the 1970's. Pre Steve Jobs, a bit of Microsoft getting started, Moore's chip revolution, the advent of personal computers. For anybody interested in the emergence of computers, it covers an interesting period of time. A bit anti-climatic-- the start-up is interesting but the book fades as it gets closer in time.
Oct 27, 2013 Brian rated it really liked it
Recommended to Brian by: goodreads
Shelves: grbpp
(4.0) Great subject, stayed focused on the engineering, the projects (mostly)

I appreciate that Hiltzik stayed focused (more or less) on the actual engineering and creative projects, (vs What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, in which I think more time was spent on the (counter-)culture, the hippiness, everything going on around PARC at the time). We get threads of history, usually told through the projects (the Alto, the laser printer, super
Feb 12, 2008 Jon rated it it was amazing
While I am only 3/4 the way through, this is a fascinating book on PARC -- Palo Alto Research Center. PARC is the research lab for Xerox, which you may know was the dominant player in photocopier business back in the 60s and 70s.

Dealers of Lightning provides a fascinating history of the development of many everyday, common products -- the computer mouse, the personal computer, the word processor, windows GUI, and much more, which were all originally developed at PARC!

This books provides a rich
Dan Cohen
Jul 12, 2014 Dan Cohen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good book that covers the technical, people, management and cultural sides of the Xerox PARC Alto / Star story in balance. I preferred the book to the much older "Fumbling the Future" because the latter focussed too much on the management side of things. In fact, I'm on the lookout now for an account that goes further towards the technical side, because "Dealers of Lightning", while better than "Fumbling the Future" in this regard, still comes up way short of what I'd have liked to see.

The boo
Daniel Papke
Jan 31, 2016 Daniel Papke rated it it was amazing
Fascinating. A narrative about a top-notch group of people who pushed the boundaries of technology. Sheer brilliance combined with massive egos in a pressure cooker that produced innovations ahead of their time, yet flew apart under Xerox's stodgy, clueless management. The members of PARC went on in many cases to become early employees at little places like Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe. Good to read if you want to understand how innovative environments are created.
Bill DePhillips
Oct 10, 2014 Bill DePhillips rated it really liked it
Read this in grad school. It's an entertaining account of the most productive and famous computer research lab ever, the Palo Alto Research Center. They basically invented the personal computer but the funder of the center, Xerox, didn't have the foresight to see its potential.
May 17, 2014 Aku rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent summary of how Xerox PARC came to be and how it changed the world forever in so many ways. Full of intricate characters and unexpected twists.

I'm pretty sure most people using computers have no idea where the desktop metaphor came from, or laser printers for that matter. It feels eerie that even iPad, introduced over a decade *after* this book was written! was anticipated in Kay's Notetaker. Both Apple and Microsoft owe heavily to Xerox PARC.
Dec 20, 2011 Josh rated it it was amazing
The Epilogue opens with "Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry today." They had the technology because they brought the best technological minds together and built the computer of the future. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to lead organizations. Xerox had access to capital, a market base, and manufacturing capacity but their failure to execute was a colossal missed opportunity. It also shows how short sighted the executives of our era can be. Instead of l ...more
Brian O'Callaghan
Jan 02, 2014 Brian O'Callaghan rated it it was amazing
What an amazing tour through one of my favorite subjects.

Although some of the figures and history were known to me prior to reading the book, the tight, compelling narrative and medium-good technical depth made this book a true pleasure to read.

The author seemed forthcoming about the fact that his sources were biased and sometimes contradictory; I was left with the impression that he had done a good job sifting through the material and presenting it with an even hand. Of course, without having r
Eric Andresen
Apr 17, 2013 Eric Andresen rated it really liked it
Excellent historical review of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Lots of people don't know that this is the birthplace of the Modern computer with the mouse, laser printers, windows icons and menus and Ethernet Networking.

Basically everything about the modern computer experience was invented by Xerox and sad as it may be they had no idea how to bring most of it to Market. It took Apple computers to later realize the Laser Printer and the Mac before most people could see this wonderful techno
Sep 10, 2015 Jahde added it
changed my perspective on what's possible with technology and the approach we should take with man vs machine
Amar Pai
Dec 11, 2010 Amar Pai rated it really liked it
Wow I had no idea how much stuff originated from PARC.
-laser printers
-desktop computing w/ GUI - mouse, windowing, all that
-object oriented programming (smalltalk)
-probably more stuff I'm forgetting

Truly a remarkable place, and a tragic story for Xerox. Their clueless corporate management and stultifying resistance to change kept them from truly realizing the commercial potential for most of these things. They could have OWNED computing in the 90's and beyond. Instead th
Jan 07, 2013 Tony rated it really liked it
The best way to know what the future holds is to invent it.

And these people did.

I've always been fascinated with the things they developed. This book provides an in-depth look at the personalities, the creations and the large number of companies which spun-off from this place. Xerox had no idea what they had, and they blew it. If not for the hidebound executives on the "other coast," they'd own the PC market today. The windowing user interface, ethernet, networked file and printer servers, laser
Jul 02, 2015 Peter rated it really liked it
Shelves: work-read

Completion date estimated.
Richard Fohrenbach
I have worked at PARC since December 2010
Nov 13, 2014 Tom rated it really liked it
Shelves: business, non-fiction
I never expect books on business or technology to be very engaging, but this book marries the two in a very riveting way. The thinkers at PARC had to be the finest assembly of innovators we'll ever see. The innovation that came out of the PARC changed the world in every conceivable way and Xerox owned it and let it slip through their fingers. So many lessons to be learned here on adaptation, vision, leadership, management and more. If the idea of reading a book on business or computers sounds dr ...more
Nov 11, 2013 Unjmhy rated it it was amazing
And I thought the book on Steve Jobs was an entertaining read! The long list of innovations at PARC in the 1970's is stunning and captured my attention, making it a book I finished very quickly. Also, the author sheds light on why PARC was able to achieve what it did as well as provide a more reasonable perspective on why Xerox struggled to take advantage of PARC's innovations. The chapter on Steve Jobs visiting PARC gives a more believable account of what actually happened, instead of the simpl ...more
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“The rules were explicit: No employee, from the chief executive down to the lowliest mailroom clerk, could talk to the press without a PR minder in tow. The communications department ruthlessly monitored all press coverage, issuing stern correctives to newspapers or magazines that erred on so much as an executive title.” 0 likes
“At the first session the group piled on an unfortunate wild man from that backwater, the University of Utah, named Alan Kay. Kay had stepped forth in a public session to pitch his vision of a computer you could hold in your hand. He had already coined a name for it: “Dynabook,” a notebook-shaped machine with a display screen and a keyboard you could use to create, edit, and store a very personal sort of literature, music, and art. “He was crazy,” Wessler recalled. “People greeted the whole idea with disbelief and gave him a very tough time. He painted this picture of walking around with a computer under your arm, which we all thought was completely ridiculous.” 0 likes
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