ACM Honours Charles Thacker with Turing Award

Earlier this week, it was time for the Association for Computing Machinery, ACM, to announce the winner of the 2009 Turing Award, one of the more prestigious prices in the computing industry. The award was awarded to Charles P. Thacker; a name you might not recognise, but certainly one that has influenced the world of computing a great deal.

Thacker has an impressive track record in the computing industry, with his most famous work being the Xerox Alto machine, the computer that would set the standard for what the personal computer would look like and how it would work. He worked at the Computer Systems Laboratory at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center as the leader of the Alto project.

The Alto was the first machine to introduce the graphical user interface and the desktop metaphor; both concepts we still use every day. It served as the major influence for the original Macintosh (let’s face it, Apple more or less copied it outright – with permission from Xerox!), and thus, for the entire industry. Many innovative applications were written for the Alto, including the first WYSIWYG document programs. The Alto also ran the first few versions of the Smalltalk environment.

The Alto also featured something else Thacker is partially responsible for: an ethernet port. Thacker co-invented ethernet together with Robert Metcalfe, David Boggs, and Butler Lampson, and the LAN technology is now by far the most popular one. At PARC, Thacker also contributed to the development of the first laser printer.

He then went on to work at DEC, where he co-developed the first multiprocessor workstation, the DEC Firefly. He joined Microsoft in 1997, for whom he set up a research lab in Cambridge, UK, and designed the first tablet PC hardware.

From all this it is easy to conclude that Thacker deserves the Turing Award, which is accompanied by USD 250000. “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 ACM President Professor Dame Wendy Hall, “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.”

Thacker finds himself in prestigious company – the Turing Award has previously been awarded to people like Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, and Ivan Sutherland.


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