Restoring The Groundbreaking Xerox Alto

The Xerox Alto was a minicomputer that had a lot of firsts to its name: first GUI, first Ethernet connection, and first computer to use a laser printer. This is the computer that inspired Steve Jobs to build the Lisa. And this was built all back in 1973! So when [Ken Shirriff] and a team of other old-computer aficionados got their hands on one, you know they’d get to work.

[Ken]’s blog describes the start of what’s sure to be a long journey. It mostly describes the Alto system and locates its place in computer history, but there are some interesting sidelines as well — like how [Alan Kay] also basically outlined all of the functionality of the modern laptop / tablet along the way to the Alto; it was supposed to be an interim Dynabook.

Work on this grandfather-of-modern-computers is just getting started, and [Ken] and crew are dusting off the power supplies and cataloguing memory boards. You can be sure that we’ll follow along with this restoration project, and keep you informed.

27 thoughts on “Restoring The Groundbreaking Xerox Alto

  1. This is awesome, I hope they get it working. I have a Lisa-1 (twiggy drives and all). A lot the Xerox PARC guys went to Apple to build the Lisa-1 which I consider is the first widely available implementation of Alto technology. I’d really like to get the Lisa system going, but am missing a 220V power supply (not 110V switchable; its from a previous life at a south african missile testing range, but thats another story)

    1. Hi Chandra

      I am in South Africa and have an extensive Apple collection. Do you have any additional info on who you got the Lisa from or where it was? I am hoping this may give me a lead on where to find one here. Thanks.

  2. 220V? Was it in Angola? Or just aimed there :-)
    (SA is 230V, or was, when I lived there, about the time of the Lisa-1, actually)

    And 110V now? Where is it now, Columbia? USA (and just about everyone not at 230V except Japan’s 100V) is 120V (and closer to 125V every place I’ve actually measured it)

    1. Sorry I mistyped….When the Lisa-1 arrived into the US, it had a 220V only power supply. The later Lisa 2’s had a 110/220V switchable power supply. This unit must have be one of the first Lisa’s. The previous owner of the unit showed me the system operating under 220V, but been unable to verify. Interestingly he sent me enough parts to build another Lisa-1, but only if I could get another set of Twiggies.

        1. The problem is that the Lisa-1 are very valuable (they sell for $20k+ on ebay) as they are very rare (50 or so known units left), so I’m hesitant to anything to break a working system. I’ll play around with my TRS-80, Mac 128k, or Atari’s…but I’m quite careful with the Lisa.

          1. Right. The transformer can be used externally. Just put a socket on it to match the plug on the Lisa’s power cord. You don’t change anything on the Lisa.

          1. Well as far as I understand it, youse Mericans have reversible two pin plugs on a star phase distribution system and that’s bad enough.

            Old switch-modes rectified the incoming mains and capacitively coupled the ground side to the secondary.

            So what is ground with an auto transformer – simple it’s the same … it’s just hot or active that is 220Volts right?

            Ah but what if the incoming mains is reversed? Well active will be 110Volts instead of 220Volts and ground will be 110Volts in the opposite phase. That’s a bad bad thing!!!

            110Volts faults are most likely – tingle or shock.
            220Volts faults are most likely – shock or death.

            Your 110Volt system was made in a very lackluster style because it’s only 100Volts after all. When you take a step up in voltage (or double) then you need to also take a step up in safety as well.

          2. Anything modern that has a capacitor from one side of the mains to the chassis should have a three wire plug. In the US, the ground (earth), neutral (power connection that is supposed to be at ground potential) and hot are in defined locations on the plug and shouldn’t ever end up being switched around.

          3. @RÖB: North American plugs have been polarized (neutral blade is wider), and grounded, for many years. In that sense they are better than some (most?) European systems where both phase and neutral pins are still the same in size.

          4. “Well as far as I understand it, youse Mericans have reversible two pin plugs on a star phase distribution system and that’s bad enough.”

            Well as far as I understand it you Europeans had your cities all bombed to rubble so I would imagine you don’t have much electricity. See.. it’s easy to make moronic statements when you rely on outdated information. (WWII)

            To be fair we do still have many homes that were wired without grounds decades ago. We also have ignorant people that replace those old ungrounded, non-polarized sockets with modern ones giving the appearance of safety but there is still no ground wire and only a 50% chance they got the polarity right. All new construction has been much safer than that for several decades now and some people actually do perform upgrades properly so the situation isn’t that bad and is only getting better.

            Now if anyone can convince my fater in law that breaking the ground pin off all his extension cords is a stupid thing to do even though his equipment still turns on when he plugs it in… that would be nice.

          5. @[Bill] Well if that is also a Multiple Earth Neutral System (MEN) where neutral is linked to an earth rod in the ground, in the power box then it’s even worse that I expected. A reversed polarity would present 220Volts on the chassis of earthed devices. Also there is nothing “modern” about a Lisa 1 computer.

            @[Miroslav] A polarized plug is always better but it doesn’t prevent “home electricians” from reversing the polarity.

            @ the one called [Me] –
            1) I’m not in Europe
            2) I’m curious to others and encourage other to present their opinions even if they differ from mine.
            3) What you say about the older homes more or less backs up what I am saying about safety.
            4) The major point of difference is that I consider 220Volts to be far more lethal than 110Volts and worthy of greater safety efforts.

            One other thing, We have 240Volts where I live and mains *auto* transformers are outright banned from the entire country and yes, we have and always have had polarized plugs on a domestic Multiple Earth Neutral system.

            We have delta higher voltage distribution. Domestic mains voltages are all single phase. Industrial voltages are three phase delta. And delta phases are not permitted to be used as a single phase.

            We also have some safety issues but by the most part the greatest threat to electrical safety in this country is cheap electrical imports from China that avoid certification.

  3. Interesting, I snagged one of these back in 1983 from a scrap pile behind the main office. Video was a bit flaky, and I left it in my work area just for kicks. Time passed, I moved on, never knew what happened to it.. Damn. They were dumping all the “Older Stuff” as the main frame was upgraded. 75 Meg hard drives the size of a small washing machine. The scrap man said the only good parts were the controller cards. Ah, the good old days..

  4. The Alto was made of pure genius. Xerox Palo Alto Research Center made about 1,700 of them, about half for programmers and half for use by Xerox secretaries for beta testing. After testing joy sticks, track balls, etc, the winner was the mouse and the world’s first Graphical User Interface was born.

    The Alto computers were interconnected with something PARC ended up calling the “Ethernet”. When they plopped down 10 year olds in front of Altos, and asked them to “make it go”, it led to the first object oriented programming language, which PARC called Smalltalk. The screen was exactly 8.5 x 11 inches, portrait oriented. Normal video was black serif characters on a white background, and perfectly mimicked a sheet of typing paper. It is sad that this epic futuristic computer system was never envisioned as more than another office machine by the myoptic Xerox rulers. They just couldn’t see a 350 pound machine, with its 14 inch hard drives (holding 5, yes five, MB), dimming the lights when its 60 amp 5 volt supply came on, ever being sold to the masses.

    When PARC Alto project finally died, about half the employees went to Apple, and the other half to Microsoft. These two companies then spent the next years suing each other claiming themselves to be the inventors of the GUI. Yeah, right! RIP Alto. . . .

    My old lady declared that she could never do creative writing while being a “computer operator”, but was singing Alto praises by the time she finished her 400+ page dissertation! My, my, we all seem to have become computer operators. Thank you, Alan Kay!

    1. Yes, being a County District, we were called in the beta test the “Word Processor” with the vertical screen. But as things happen the IBM pc jumped up and became a lighter smaller system that meant it was easy to squeeze many more “Data Entry” stations into a smaller office space. My first pc was the first to actually share a printer in the “field engineering office”. The end was near for the dumb terminals hard wired or dial up to the mainframe.

    2. Dear Commentator “Dovepistil”,
      if you happen to read this: I am researching (for my PhD) the role of the people who used the Alto computer at Xerox Parc. I love the last part of your comment refering to your wife using it. If you’d be interested, I’d love to get into contact and hear a little bit more. Just leave a comment for me or get in contact at: alice.rzezonka[AT]gmail[DOT]com.
      Looking forward!

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