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MIT professor ‘made much of our world possible’

Computing luminaries celebrate the work of MIT adjunct professor and Turing Award winner Butler Lampson, one of the fathers of the modern PC.
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Butler Lampson
Butler Lampson

Butler Lampson, an adjunct professor at MIT since 1987 and a technical fellow at Microsoft Research, has as good a claim as anyone to the title of “father of the modern PC.” As one of the founders of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Lampson helped create the Alto, the first computer to feature a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI) — the progenitor of both the Apple Macintosh and the Windows operating system. He also led the development of Bravo, the first “what you see is what you get” — or WYSIWYG — word processor, which ran on the Alto.

Lampson turned 70 in December; last week, a group of computer science luminaries gathered at Microsoft Research New England, at the edge of the MIT campus, for a daylong conference celebrating his achievements. On hand were seven winners of the Turing Award, often called the Nobel Prize in computing. Two were PARC alumni, four were MIT professors, and the seventh was Lampson himself, who falls into both categories.

The talks were divided into three segments. In the first, Lampson’s PARC colleagues reminisced about their glory days. Two of the speakers were Turing winners: Charles Thacker, who led the design of the Alto’s hardware, and Alan Kay, who wrote the first full-fledged object-oriented programming language, smalltalk, a progenitor of modern languages like Java and Python. Two more played major roles in building billion-dollar businesses: Charles Simonyi, who worked with Lampson on Bravo and later led the development of Microsoft’s Office suite of applications, and Bob Metcalfe, whose company, 3Com, grew out of PARC research and was acquired by Hewlett-Packard for $2.7 billion in 2009.

Ubiquitous at PARC

Two major themes emerged from the morning sessions. The first was the sheer range of Lampson’s technical innovation. Lampson is known for having written the first draft of the Alto’s GUI operating system and leading its further development, but Thacker catalogued his contributions to the Alto’s hardware design. Simonyi described how Bravo was largely an elaboration of a three-page memo that Lampson drew up in the spring of 1974.

Metcalfe is often described as the inventor of Ethernet, the world’s most popular local-area networking technology and, arguably, the basis of Wi-Fi. But as he pointed out, he’s one of four people on the Ethernet patent, the others being Thacker, Lampson, and their PARC colleague David Boggs. Metcalfe’s company 3Com licensed the Ethernet patent because, as he explained, IBM was the subject of an antitrust suit at the time, and Xerox felt that, to avoid a similar liability, it had to involve a standards body in the commercialization of the technology. “Xerox decided that, to participate in making Ethernet a standard, it needed to license the patents for a nominal $1,000, which my company promptly paid,” Metcalfe said.

As the story of PARC is typically told, Xerox invented modern computing in the early 1970s but failed to capitalize on it — its neglect of Ethernet being a case in point. But in fact, another PARC invention, the laser printer, more than paid for the lab’s entire research budget, and a commercial Ethernet was the only way to move enough data to make the laser printer viable. As another PARC veteran, Bob Sproull, attested, the laser printer also has Lampson’s fingerprints on it. Sproull explained how Lampson helped develop the control system and character generator for the first Xerox laser printer, the 9700.

Strong opinions

The other theme of the morning sessions was just how formidable — and, as Metcalfe put it, “fast” — Lampson is in debate. Sproull mentioned a unit of measure used in computer science circles, which indicates the “speed of delivery of technical information” and is known as the lampson. “Most of us could ourselves only achieve millilampsons,” Sproull said.

Metcalfe concluded his talk with a list of seven lessons Lampson taught him. Some were technical: “Do the inner loops first.” Some were organizational: “Put the right person in for the right job.” But the last one, he said, was a principle he abides by: “I do not agree to change my mind just because you won the argument.”

“This I learned with Butler,” Metcalfe explained, “because Butler can win any argument, even when he’s wrong.”

Since coming to MIT, Lampson has been a member of the Cryptography and Information Security (CIS) Group, first at the Laboratory for Computer Science and, since 2003, in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; the second session dealt with his security work.

One of Lampson’s colleagues at CIS is his fellow Turing Award winner Ron Rivest, who helped develop the principles of public-key cryptography that protect almost all financial transactions on the Internet. (One of the other Turing winners in attendance was Silvio Micali, who together with a fourth CIS professor, Shafi Goldwasser, won the award last year.) Rivest described a system that he and Lampson developed that would enable the “democratization” of public-key cryptography, so that all Internet users could generate their own encryption “certificates.”

The system hasn’t been widely adopted, but Rivest expressed the hope that it still would be, as new reasons for concern about Internet security seem to appear almost weekly. Rounding out the session were talks by the Microsoft researchers Martin Abadi and Cynthia Dwork, who explained how Lampson had influenced and championed their own work on security.


During the final session, a pair of young researchers took the floor, as a testament to Lampson’s enduring legacy. Microsoft researcher Adam Kalai described how Lampson had counseled him on the design of a system that enables programmers to produce code simply by providing examples of inputs and outputs, while Nickolai Zeldovich, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, explained how his work on enabling software applications to run on multicore computers drew on the principles he’d learned as an undergraduate in Lampson’s 6.826 (Principles of Computer Systems) class.

The final word on Lampson, however, came at the beginning of the day, in a statement from Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO and current executive chairman. “Butler is probably the broadest and smartest computer scientist today,” Schmidt said, in a statement read by Simonyi. “We all just tried to keep up with him — and almost always fell behind. His contributions made much of our world possible, and I am beyond grateful.”

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