Steve Jobs, the Xerox Alto, and computer typography

Steve Jobs gave an inspirational commencement address at Stanford in 2005. He described how his decision to drop out of college unexpectedly benefitted the Macintosh years later:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. [...] Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.

While this is an uplifting story about trusting in destiny, the real source of this computerized "wonderful typography" is the Xerox Alto computer, built by Xerox PARC in 1973. The Alto was a revolutionary system, one of the first to use a high-resolution bitmapped display, a GUI, and an optical mouse. The first WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editor was created at Xerox PARC in 1974 by Charles Simonyi, Butler Lampson and other Xerox researchers. The Alto system supported many high-quality fonts, including proportionally spaced fonts with ligatures.1 Xerox PARC also invented the laser printer in 1971, allowing high-resolution documents to be printed.2

The Xerox Alto displaying Steve Job's commencement speech with fancy formatting in the Bravo editor. That's an old Macintosh 512K in the background.

The Xerox Alto displaying Steve Job's commencement speech with fancy formatting in the Bravo editor. That's an old Macintosh 512K in the background.

Xerox PARC used this software for its Alto documentation, producing high-quality printed manuals that mixed text and computer-generated drawings. The Alto User's Handbook (below), for example, combined nicely-formatted text with computer-generated drawings.6 Thus, by the time Steve Jobs founded Apple in 1976, Xerox had created a high-quality desktop publishing system. Steve Jobs' claim that the Mac (1984) was the first computer with beautiful typography is wrong by about a decade.

The Alto User's Handbook was created using the Alto's desktop publishing software, including Bravo and Draw. The closeup on the right shows how typography was combined with drawings.

The Alto User's Handbook was created using the Alto's desktop publishing software, including Bravo and Draw. The closeup on the right shows how typography was combined with drawings.

Steve Jobs famously visited Xerox PARC in 1979 and saw Xerox's GUI technology. The revolutionary systems he saw there inspired the direction for the Lisa and Macintosh. (This led Xerox to attempt to sue Apple in 1989 for copying its technology.) 5 Jobs later said about Xerox's GUI: "I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. [...] And within – you know – ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day." So although Steve Jobs claimed in his commencement speech, "If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts", the Xerox PARC visit appears to be the real source.7

Closeup of Steve Jobs' commencement speech in the Bravo editor on the Xerox Alto. This shows a few of the proportionally-spaced fonts available on the Alto. It also demonstrates centered and  justified text.

Closeup of Steve Jobs' commencement speech in the Bravo editor on the Xerox Alto. This shows a few of the proportionally-spaced fonts available on the Alto. It also demonstrates centered and justified text.

In his commencement address, Steve Jobs also claimed, "And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have [multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts]." The ironic thing is that Microsoft Word was developed by Charles Simonyi, the same Simonyi who co-wrote Xerox's Bravo editor in 1973. Since the Macintosh came out in 1984, the accusation of copying is directed the wrong way. It's also absurd to claim that no other personal computer would have these features without Jobs, since the Alto had them years earlier.4

Conclusion

While Steve Job's commencement speech is inspiring, it is also an example of the "reality distortion field" at work. While he claimed that a calligraphy course at Reed inspired him to provide typography support in the Macintosh, the Xerox Alto and Jobs' visit to Xerox PARC in 1979 are surely more important. The Macintosh owes everything from the WYSIWYG editor and spline-based fonts to the bitmapped display and laser printer to the Xerox Alto. Of course, Steve Jobs deserves great credit for making desktop publishing common and affordable with the Macintosh and the LaserWriter, something Xerox failed to do with the Xerox Star, an expensive ($75,000) system that commercialized the Alto's technology.

I've been restoring an Alto from YCombinator, along with Marc Verdiell, Carl Claunch and Luca Severini. My full set of Alto posts is here and Marc's extensive videos of the restoration are here. You can follow me on Twitter here for updates on the restoration.

Notes and references

  1. The Alto supported high-quality spline-based fonts, as well as bitmap fonts. PARC built an interactive font editor (FRED) and an interactive rasterizer (PREPRESS). This system is essentially an ancestor of the TrueType fonts used today (details). 

  2. Xerox PARC also invented Press, a device-independent printer file format that eventually led to PDF files. First, Xerox's Press format led to the Interpress product. Two of Interpress's creators left Xerox and started Adobe, where they created the PostScript page definition language. The ubiquitous PDF format is in turn a descendant of PostScript. Some history on Xerox's early printers and Press format is here

  3. In 1975, Xerox PARC developed an improved modeless version of the Bravo editor for use by textbook publisher Ginn & Co., which used this system for the majority of their books. This illustrates that Xerox's desktop publishing was used commercially, not just for research. See Fumbling the Future, Chapter 9 for details. The document Gypsy Evaluation is Xerox's 1976 evaluation of the system. 

  4. While the term "personal computer" is vague, it's clear that the Alto's builders intended it as a personal computer. See for example Alto: A personal computer, Alto: A Personal Computer System Hardware Manual and The Xerox Alto Computer which describes the Alto as a "personal computer to be used for research". 

  5. The details of Steve Jobs' visits to Xerox PARC are highly controversial but the description in Dealers of Lightning seems most accurate. It's well known that as part of Xerox investing in Apple, Steve Jobs arranged to see demos of the PARC technology. However, this didn't include licensing of the technology. 

  6. Examples of documents created with the Xerox Alto are the hardware manual, Alto User's Handbook, and Alto Newsletter

  7. Note that the popular Apple II computer (1977) didn't have beautiful typography or multiple fonts—it didn't even include lower case characters. Lower case support was finally added to the Apple IIe in 1983. 

6 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

FYI - It's Charles Simonyi who created MS Word, not Simyoni. Just in case anybody tries to look him up and fails.

Ken Shirriff said...

Anonymous: oops, spell check let me down :). Fixed.

Tom said...

I think the original Mac used bitmapped fonts only, didn’t it? There was no built-in support for spline-based fonts into Apple and Microsoft together constructed TrueType to deal with the absurd DRM-palooza of Adobe Type 1.

Kaleberg said...

The Alto may have been the first interactive computer to have a WYSIWYG editor, but the Alto was not a personal computer. Its cost basis was way too high. When its successor, the Star, was finally commercialized it sold for $50K a seat in the late 1970s. That was not personal computer money. $5K was the top end of that market. The Xerox branded personal computer that did come out was much more conventional. I don't think they recognized that having significantly better software might let them recover its higher cost as the market expanded. A lot of outfits were surprised by the rapid adoption of the personal computers.

Steve Jobs probably did base the Macintosh's use of font and typography on the Alto's, but having taken a calligraphy course let him understand what he was seeing. There's a lot of technical knowledge behind typography. Many, many people were familiar with the printed page, but only a relative handful thought about how the text was presented, especially back then. Nowadays people casually discuss serif and san-serif and joke about bad kerning, but, like bits and bytes, those were obscure technical terms back then.

The font people I knew back then thought of text presentation as a combination of data and carrier, terminology taken from radio and signals theory. The carrier included the spacing, weight and orientation of the vertical strokes. (Look at Muriel Cooper's MIT Press collophon from that era.) The data was encoded in the stroke lengths, and this was supported by the horizontal components. The Macintosh text system exploited this by letting the user select a font and produce variants like italic, bold or shadowed by manipulating the carrier. This is something one would have learned from calligraphy, but not likely anywhere else.

Ken Shirriff said...

Kaleberg: thanks for your detailed comments. I'll just mention out that the Alto let you create variants of fonts (italic, bold, underline); there were simple commands in the Bravo editor to do this.