Computer pioneer Charles Thacker receives AM Turing Award

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Charles Thacker and John Davis collaborate on the BEE3 computer-architecture hardware platform in March, 2010

Charles Thacker and John Davis collaborate on the BEE3 computer-architecture hardware platform in March, 2010. View gallery (3 images)

Does the name Charles Thacker mean anything to you? Here’s a hint – he has recently been awarded the Turing Award – the most prestigious award honor in computing and considered to be the computing equivalent of a Nobel Prize. What has he done to earn him such an illustrious award? It’s more a case of what hasn’t he done...Charles Thacker designed the Alto – the world’s first personal computer and a prototype for networked personal computers. He also made significant contributions to the Ethernet local area network, as well as the first multiprocessor workstation and the prototype for a tablet PC. Currently employed by Microsoft, Thacker joked that many of his achievements happened way before “Microsoft even existed, when Bill [Gates] was in short pants.”

From Physics to Computing

Charles Thacker didn’t envisage a career in computing. In fact, when he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1967, with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics, he had his heart set on becoming an engineering physicist. Needing to earn some money to pay for graduate school he was soon hired as a staff engineer for a computer-research project called the Project Genie computer-research effort, which was based at his alma mater. It was then that his lifelong love affair with computing began. “I had used computers -I had programmed them - in the course of studying physics,” Thacker said, “I’d always thought that was not very interesting, but when I actually got closely and deeply exposed to what was going on, I was seduced.”

Mr. “Make it Work”

During his period working on Project Genie, Thacker was introduced to several influential people in computing history, including Butler Lampson, Peter Deutsch, Mel Pirtle and Wayne Lichtenberger. Keen to build a successor to the SDS 940 - one of the first successful commercial time-sharing machines – they obtained funding and founded the Berkeley Computer Corp. (BCC). In 1969 they built a working time-sharing system - the BCC-500 - eventually selling it to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) when funding dwindled during the 1970 recession. But the effort was too big to gain funding as a university project, so the Berkeley contingent started shopping around.

Luckily for Thacker, he was hired by Bob Taylor, head of the ARPA Information Processing Techniques Office. Taylor had just been hired by George Pake, the man responsible for setting up the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The facility became famous for its research projects and computing innovations which resulted in the Alto, the Ethernet and laser printing. Thacker, known as “Mr. Make it Work” during his working period at Xerox PARC, noted that the researchers were lucky because, “we could work on new things … because we needed them. The motivation of being able to build things that you actually want is extremely high.”

The Alto, laser printer and the Ethernet

Initially, the team developed the MAXC, the Multiple Access Xerox Computer. Thacker recalled, “It was very intense. We previously had built a time-sharing system we wanted to have for the computer-science lab at PARC, a machine more like the machine that the rest of the ARPANET community used, a PDP-10. Unfortunately, Xerox had just bought a computer company [Scientific Data Systems], and they wanted us to use an SDS Sigma V. We looked at the machine, and it was just not good for time sharing. We wanted to buy a PDP-10, but it would have been very unseemly had we placed an order with the company’s primary computer competitor, so we decided to build one.”

Once, the MAXC was completed, Thacker turned his skills to building the Alto. He had discovered a way to make a very inexpensive machine and how to create a bitmap display. Thacker said, “That came about because of the introduction of semiconductor memory. MAXC had used the very first available semiconductor memory. We had these nice little boards and this very inexpensive memory—it cost less than a tenth of a cent a bit. That meant you could afford to use the memory as backing for the display.”

This meant that the PC could become a reality. By time-sharing the processor at the lowest level, Thacker realized that he could reduce the cost of engineering and build one for every lab member. The Alto was designed to be self-sufficient and used a bitmapped display that, along with a mouse, offered a graphical user interface that is still in use by over a billion computers today.

The research team at Xerox PARC also developed the laser printer. However, because it was too expensive to give a laser printer to everyone at the lab – the idea for the Ethernet was born.

Thacker noted, “The Ethernet didn’t come in immediately. It lagged by about six months. The signaling part of the Ethernet I figured out; that was the realm of electrical engineering. But all the other stuff, the packet format and the protocols and so on, that was Metcalfe and Boggs and, to some extent, Butler.”

Although the Alto was not released commercially, it was used in some universities and by Jimmy Carter’s White House. However, the concepts used in the Alto are still used daily on computers throughout the world. Thacker said, “PCs didn’t get to be as good as the Alto for about 12 years. It took a lot of work on software and a lot of hardware progress before they got on a par with scientific workstations. But they had one major advantage, and that was that Moore’s Law was on their side.”

What came next for Thacker?

After 13 years at Xerox PARC, Thacker took a team to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) where he helped to construct the first computer to use the DEC Alpha system. He also led hardware development on Firefly as well as pursuing networking development of the AN1 and AN2 systems and worked on a high-performance, high-bandwidth networking project that became a product called GIGAswitch/ATM.

After 13 years at DEC, Thacker spent two years helping to set up a Microsoft research lab in Cambridge, U.K. On his return to the States, Thacker got involved in a nascent electronic-book effort – a Tablet PC reader. He provided the initial design for the Tablet PC, oversaw a group of Peninsula-based contractors and worked with Flextronics to get it manufactured.

Thacker noted, “Some people at that time really loved Tablets, and some still do. FedEx delivery people use them. We’re beginning to take over medicine, because doctors want to write; they don’t want to type. And university professors love Tablets—for one reason: When they’re giving a class, they can write on their slides as they’re teaching.”

Thacker is now in his 13th year at Microsoft and continues to work actively with colleagues, including work on field-programmable gate arrays to enable multicore-computing experimentation and a project that will enable research on operating-system principles specifically for multicore systems.

The A.M. Turing Award

Thacker was granted the 2009 Turing Award on March 9 for his contributions of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field. It is the Association for Computing Machinery’s highest accolade and he was the second person to win the award for contributions in designing and building computer machinery. The last recipient for the same contribution was Britain’s Maurice Wilkes, in 1967.

Thacker said, “I was extremely surprised. I never expected to win this one. There are several other nice awards that I’ve won that I thought were within the realm of possibility, but this one I never even thought was possible.”

His longtime collaborator, Butler Lampson, nominated Thacker for the award. In his nomination letter, Lampson noted, “Chuck is surely one of the most distinguished computer-systems engineers in the history of the field...Chuck is an engineer’s engineer. 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.”

The award carries a $250,000 prize, with financial support provided by Intel Corporation and Google Inc. ACM President Professor Dame Wendy Hall, said “Charles Thacker’s contributions have earned him a reputation as one of the most distinguished computer systems engineers in the history of the field,” said. “His enduring achievements - from his initial innovations on the PC to his leadership in hardware development of the multiprocessor workstation to his role in developing the tablet PC - have profoundly affected the course of modern computing.”

How does Thacker see computing in the future?

Thacker simply wants to make computing better. He said, “We have made an awful lot of progress over the last 50 years, but it’s the 21st century, and the technologies we have at our disposal are very different from the kinds of technologies we had when those original decisions were made. It seems prudent for us to go back and look at some of those things in light of what we have in the 21st century. You might wind up doing computing in a very different way.”

For a man who has already achieved so much, Thacker remains modest to the end. He said, “Personal computing basically grew out of what happened at Xerox PARC - and I had a big part in that. That’s probably enough.”

Via: Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Microsoft.

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