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The archetype of the modern PC: use a Xerox Alto from the 70s in your browser

PARC / Museum of Computer History

In 1973, Xerox introduced High , a pioneering research computer that set the stage for the modern PC with the use of a bitmap graphical interface, a mouse, and local networks. Thanks to an emulator, you can simulate a stop in your browser. But first, let’s see why the Alto was special.

Tremendous influence

In 1973, the engineers of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) they created a revolutionary computer called Xerox Alto that pioneered mouse-based graphical user interface (GUI), bitmap graphics, local networks, laser printing, network computer games, object-oriented software development and much more.

Alto’s paper-white portrait screen monitor made an ideal platform for innovations in computer document preparation, including the first WYSIWYG ( “What you see is what you get”) text processors that supported multiple sources. It also housed the first drawing programs and font editors who would later revolutionize publishing.

When a Xerox PARC engineer invented the laser printer In the early 1970s, a group of networked Alto computers could share the high-quality printer. AND thanks to Ethernet (also invented in PARC), a local group of Alto computers could exchange files, share a Connection ARPANET or even play with each other.

While Xerox took time to capitalize the amazing inventions incorporated into the Alto, he had no qualms about showing them off. Many researchers in the 1970s at universities (and visitors from other companies) used Alto drives, and the computer inspired the creation of many of the first single user graphical workstations . And in a 1979 commercial , Xerox publicized the Alto’s capabilities, including email and network printing.

The most famous is that Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC in 1979 and came away convinced that Xerox held the key to the future of personal computing. That inspiration led to the launch of the Apple Lisa in 1983 and from Macintosh the next year.

For less than a decade, Xerox produced more than 2,000 Alto units in two models (Alto I and Alto II), but the computer was never officially for sale. Aside from its internal use within Xerox, Xerox donated 50 units to US universities. In 1979, several were in use in the White House during the Jimmy Carter administration.

Xerox Alto Specifications

Considering its development in 1972, it is not surprising that the Alto did not use a microprocessor. Instead, he used a ALU personalized made of various TI 74181 chips . Here’s a look at the basic specs of the Alto.

  • 5.8 MHz 16-bit custom CPU
  • 128 to 512 KB RAM
  • A 606 × 808 pixel monochrome (black or white only) bitmap bitmap display on a full page CRT monitor in portrait orientation
  • Storage provided on removable 2.5 MB hard drive cartridges
  • Three button mouse
  • Set of keys of chords of five keys
  • Modular keyboard

Try the Alto yourself today

With just a web browser, you can try using your old Xerox Alto software today without downloading any special software. This feat comes thanks to an amazing emulator called ContrAltoJS created by Living Computer Museum and adapted to JavaScript by the programmer Seth Morabito, with headquarters in Washinton .

Maze War on a Xerox Alto
Maze war running on the Xerox Alto emulator.

To start, visit the website ContrAltoJS in any modern web browser (such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge). Below the large rectangle (representing Alto’s virtual screen), use the drop-down menu to select a disk image. This is equivalent to inserting a disk cartridge into a real Alto.

For example, choose “games.dsk” to load a disc full of games. When you are ready to start the emulator, click “Start”.

Select a disk image and click

When the emulator starts, hover the mouse cursor over the emulator window to focus the mouse and keyboard input on the Simulated Alto. You can type “?” to see a catalog of programs stored on the disk image, and you can usually just type the filename (and hit Enter) to run it.

For example, to run Star trek On the Games disk, type “trek” and press Enter on the command line, and the game will load. There are dozens of more games to try, some developed in the 1980s. Morabito includes more instructions on the emulator’s own page on how to load Smalltalk , for instance.

Wait, this is nothing like a Mac

While browsing the Xerox Alto software, you may notice that Alto’s operating system (called “Alto Executive”) no is GUI-based . Instead, you must type commands to use it. Additionally, Alto’s preferred file manager, Neptune, is graphical and mouse-based, but lacks icons or any kind of spatial interface. There is no folder to find, what is it?

While much has been written about the influence of Xerox Alto in computer systems Lisa and Macintosh de Manzana Alto did not originate the metaphor of desktop file management, with icons, folders, and file spatial exploration that those Apple computers borrowed and extended. Instead, that honor goes to him Viewpoint operating system of the Xerox Star 8010 Information System , released in 1981. While Star was the first commercial GUI-based computer, it tends to go unnoticed in the history books due to its relative failure in the marketplace.

The Xerox Alto Neptune File Manager.
The Xerox Alto Neptune file manager, no icons in sight.

(Interestingly, the Neptune file manager looks more like the ones used in Microsoft Windows before Windows 95 than Mac).

Still, you can see that the development of the GUI was not something unique, but rather it was carried out on a continuum of innovation that continues to this day. Every step along the way (from NLS up to Alto, Star, Lisa, Mac and plus ) added features and complexity. But without a doubt, El Alto was a fundamental step to get to where we are today.

For more information on Xerox Alto and its development at PARC, we recommend that you refer to the book Dealers of Lightning by Michael A. Hiltzik . For now, play around with the Alto emulator and try some of this legendary software for yourself. Have fun!

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