Charles Thacker Dies Aged 74: You Wouldn't Be Online Without Him

By Ian Morris on at

Charles Thacker, the man who helped create graphical operating systems, the laser printer and tablet computers has died aged 74.

Working at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre in the '70s Thacker helped to develop the Alto, the world's first computer with a graphical user interface. This was at a time when most computers used text-only command lines and, as such, not great for normal people.  The work done in those early days at Parc impressed people like Steve Jobs and enabled the Mac to be developed by Apple and inspired Bill Gates to create Windows. These advances led to the computers of today, and an explosion in the popularity of home computers.

It wasn't just developing the more glamorous aspects of computing that kept Thacker busy either. He was also responsible, in part, for work on the standards that allow us to send information over the internet, and around local networks. It's hard to overstate the impact Ethernet had on the world, from office PCs connecting to local networks through to delivering superfast broadband to your home, Ethernet has played a huge role in virtually everything we do. The key was being able to send and receive data at the same time, something that wasn't possible with radio networks like ALOHA, which connected the Hawaiian Islands together. Ethernet allowed the checking of data that had been sent and could re-send any data that had been corrupted. You simply couldn't have the internet without the work done by Thacker and the others at Parc like Robert Metcalfe, David Boggs and Butler Lampson.

It's also worth pointing out that Ethernet was invented in 1973 and it was the foresight of that team meant that it could continue on and on, adapting to new technologies that allowed speeds to increase. From a token ring coaxial network originally with speeds lower than 10mbps up to today's 10gbps networks.

Eventually, Thacker left and worked at Digital Equipment and developed the world's first multiprocessor workstations. After he joined Microsoft and moved to the UK to establish Microsoft Research in Cambridge. Microsoft's investment in both R&D and the UK has created a huge number of amazing projects like machine learning and has made things like Kinect a possibility.

Perhaps Microsoft would even give credit to Thacker for its current success with the Surface range of tablets. When he returned to the US Thacker designed the early hardware for Microsoft's tablet PC range.

Thacker never thought computing was boring, despite a lifetime working in the field. In 2014 he said "New physics is being discovered every day, and many of those discoveries will surely have a significant impact on computing, So the journey has just begun".

Thacker died on Monday after a short illness. His contribution to the world will continue to be his legacy, allowing us to publish this story and thank him for a lifetime of work to make the world a cooler place and bring about staggering change. [via Ars Technica and ACM]

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