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

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  2,117 ratings  ·  168 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 PC
Paperback, 480 pages
Published April 5th 2000 by Harper Business (first published March 1st 1999)
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Nathan Davis
Jun 24, 2011 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
Keri Solaris
Mar 10, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-for-uni
Actual Rating: 2.5 Stars

"This did not mean that great discoveries, even surprising ones, will not be made here and there by researchers working for corporations. It simply means that a certain quality once possessed by PARC in its extraordinary early years seems to have departed from the world of science and technology, perhaps forever. Call it magic."

Not my favorite book; read for class. It wasn't that it was bad, it just wasn't for me and didn't really capture my interest. However, it gives
Apr 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
The first ever time I developed software using the Smalltalk programming language and development environment, it was a sublime experience. There was no other way to describe it. I had written computer programs in C, Cobol, Fortran etc prior to that for many years, but Smalltalk was qualitatively in a much higher plane in terms of the joy it brought to the programming experience. The object-oriented approach and the Integrated Development Environment of Smalltalk brought a totally intuitive feel ...more
Josh Friedlander
I'm sceptical of the genius narrative. In my mind, there are always a few people with irrational self-confidence - and of course a couple happen to succeed. Cue mythmaking, fawning biographies and countless would-be clones...

Relatedly, I can feel some sympathy for the executives at Xerox. The standard narrative is that their Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) developed all of the big ideas of modern desktop computing (mouse, ethernet connection, desktop GUI, laser printing) under their noses, but
Douglas Sellers
Apr 21, 2017 rated it liked it
Really the Grand Canyon of books. Everyone knows that the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground but when you go see it your like "DAMN that's a big hole in the ground. Same thing with this book. The myth is that xerox parc invented most modern software but when you read this book your like "DAMN they really did invent everything." Overall though, a few stories aside, it just adds depth to the myth rather than providing any real new insights. ...more
Jul 17, 2015 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. ...more
Aarsh Shah
Oct 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: tech

"Computing is pop culture. […] Pop culture holds a disdain for history. Pop culture is all
about identity and feeling like you’re participating. It has nothing to do with cooperation,
the past or the future — it’s living in the present. I think the same is true of most
people who write code for money. They have no idea where [their culture came from]…"

- Alan Kay

We stand on the shoulders of giants. I swear to never forget this. Writing code for me now, will be a spiritual experience. I atleast hope
Scott Holstad
Feb 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, technology
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 virtually
May 29, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2022
I had a blast reading this one. If you are into history of computers this is a gem. It's the story of PARC (Xerox's huge research lab) during its most prolific decade, 70 to 80. It's maybe the last known example of a company leaving scientists do whatever they want with a huge budget. You get stories about the invention of Ethernet, PuP (which inspired TCP/IP), Postcript, and the Alto. A computer ridiculously ahead of its time. The first half was the most interesting because you see the gestatio ...more
Jan 25, 2011 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
Sep 04, 2012 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
Tim Black
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A perfect companion to the book "Where Wizards Stay Up Late", this book provides a more nuanced explanation for why so many of the technologies pioneered at PARC ended up being exploited by other, more nimble, technology companies. I am coming away with a greater appreciation for the difficulty of turning truly groundbreaking research into marketable consumer products. Highly recommend. ...more
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
Fascinating story but told in a superficial manner. Mentions hundreds of names you will not remember a minute later and ignores all but simplest technical issues. I'm just not that interested in people's personal stories. Came here for the technology and was bored by all the social aspects. ...more
Simon Eskildsen
Aug 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Entertaining account of the heyday of Xerox PARC in the 1970s when Alan Kay, Bob Taylor, and Thacker were all there spewing out inventions such as the ALTO; arguably the most complete, first personal computer. Although it was never successfully brought to market, it heavily influenced personal computing. Xerox is where the foundation of human-computer interaction was developed: mouse, GUI, WYSIWYG, and so on. Ethernet was built at XEROX too, where the appeal of an "ARPANET for Everyone" (ARPAnet ...more
George Hipp
Jan 15, 2022 rated it it was amazing
No matter your background or career, this is a good book. However, if you are interested in where all of the devices and applications you enjoy came from, this book is amazing! My time in technology started pretty much when this book was published, which is already over 20 years ago. As a child I had an i386, learned DOS, GWBasic, and have been interested in hardware and programming since. My career has followed those interests and this book fills in the history of how it all started.

Julian Dunn
Aug 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After reading Dealers of Lightning, I can conclude that the broad strokes of what you've heard about Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) are true: that they were responsible for some of the most innovative achievements in computing, inventing the graphical user interface, the mouse, laser printing, desktop publishing and word processing, Ethernet, and many more -- yet that Xerox not only had no idea how to commercialize many of these achievements successfully, they let folks like Steve Jobs f ...more
Mar 03, 2014 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
David Jackson
Jul 04, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Xerox PARC is legendary among geeks, of which I am proud to be one. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have read this book. Like many legends, there is a little embellishment in most of the recounts of the tale. I haven't seen the movie "Jobs", but I have seen " Pirates Of Silicon Valley "....the story of how Xerox fumbled away their chance to usher in and dominate the fledgling personal computer industry. The truth, as is almost always the case, is a bit more complicated.
For a time, PARC was Computer Gee
Jan 22, 2012 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 bumped
Richard Rossi
Oct 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is not for everyone because it contains a lot of office politics. But it does document the role PARC played in the 1970's in laying the foundation for much of what we now take for granted in computer technology. I worked at Xerox during the 70's, spent many hours at PARC on business and was personally involved in some of the products that used PARC inventions. I also witnessed the corporate level office politics that caused PARC so much trouble. I knew many of the corporate players and ...more
Amar Pai
Dec 08, 2010 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
Mikael Falkvidd
Apr 14, 2012 rated it liked it
I love the stories from this era. It created the industry I love and work in. The book feels very accurate and tells a detailed story. I found it a bit heavy sometimes though.

If you liked this book you should definitely read iWoz.
Oct 02, 2014 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.
Feb 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Excellent - Xerox really dropped the ball on this one.
Aviva Rosman
Apr 20, 2022 rated it liked it
Though the writing is a bit dry, the actual history depicted in Dealers of Lightning is fascinating and worth learning about, both to understand the origins of modern personal computers and to learn from the story of Xerox, which failed to commercialize a dizzying array of technologies developed at their Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Hiltzik describes the origins of Ethernet, the laser printer, overlapping desktop windows, and the mouse, most of which would only reach the public via Apple Co
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." - Alan Kay

I knew that the Xerox PARC had been important (I saw Pirates of Silicon Valley), but before reading this book I had no idea how much. The did invent the future, all right: personal computing, graphical user interfaces, object-oriented programming, WYSIWYG editors, Ethernet, laser printing, VLSI chip design - the list goes on and on. There's even the suggestion that a protocol developed at PARC influenced TCP/IP. I was particularly i
Sandy Maguire
Jun 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've read "Where Wizards Stay Up Late", and "Steve Jobs" --- this book is a nice piece of history linking the events of those two things. It's a fun read about a bunch of visionaries and their cool engineering. Though the book hit a little too close to home; the toxic politics inside PARC reminded me of a lot of the otherwise-great jobs I've had! Xerox's bureaucracy's complete incapacity to do anything with their amazing research is a great warning against growing too big.

The PARC guys are inspi
Michael E.

If you read any amount of computer history, you invariably hear about the mythical research done at Xerox PARC, and of course the demo of the technology to the people at Apple. This book does a great job at getting to the truth of the matter, and is an interesting history of a bunch of brilliant researchers and the innovative work that they did.

We learn about the creation of many technologies we take for granted today, and the people behind them. We also learn about how the people and ideas serv

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An ok and readable history of the research and pioneering work at PARC. That work was important and groundbreaking in some ways, but I think the book overplays some developments by giving the illusion that similar or related work was not being done by other people and institutions. For example, it spends a lot of time talking about the singular importance of their work on the laser printer, only to mention offhand, much later in the book, that IBM released a similar product to market before they ...more
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As a columnist and reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Michael A. Hiltzik won the 1999 beat reporting Pulitzer Prize for co-writing an article about corruption in the music industry, and the 2004 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism. He earned his Masters degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1974.

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51 likes · 3 comments
“Yet his experiments led him to a contradictory conclusion. Programming did not teach people how to think—he realized he knew too many narrow-minded programmers for that to be so, now that he considered the question in depth. The truth was the converse: Every individual’s ingrained way of thinking affected how he or she programmed.” 0 likes
“No corner of PARC generated anything like the Kay group’s free-wheeling mania. “It was an amazingly seductive environment,” recalled Merry. “I was there late at night all the time. People were so full of ideas and excitement, and of course everybody knew more than anybody else about how the world was supposed to be.” 0 likes
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