Microsoft Researcher Wins Computing's 'Nobel'

Wednesday Mar 10th 2010 by Stuart J. Johnston

Chuck Thacker invented what is arguably the first personal computer, and co-invented the Ethernet, both while he was one of the founding researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.

It's been a long time coming for Chuck Thacker.

The veteran computing researcher, who currently works for Microsoft Research in the Silicon Valley, was honored this week as the 2009 winner of the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) A.M. Turing Award, the most prestigious accolade that a computer scientist can receive.

Thacker, one of the founding computer researchers at Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the early 1970s. He is widely credited with engineering the hardware for the Xerox Alto, which was arguably the first personal computer. He also helped co-invent the Ethernet protocol during his 13 years at the lab.

All told, the work done by researchers at PARC led directly to today's electronic office, with impacts including the Apple Mac and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows, WYSIWYG graphical editing, tablet computing, and many others.

Considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the field of computing, the Turing Award is named after British mathematician and World War II code breaker Alan Turing, who was a pioneering figure in computer science and artificial intelligence research.

Thacker is in good company. Though most recipients are hardly household names, their discoveries and inventions have changed the lives of perhaps billions of people.

The ACM's Turing rolls include Douglas Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse, the windowing interface, and hyperlinking, and Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, the co-creators of the TCP/IP communications protocol, which made the Internet possible.

Even at his current position as a technical fellow at Microsoft Research, Thacker is not alone. The Microsoft labs include other Turing Award winners such as Butler Lampson, another PARC alumnus who collaborated on the design of the Alto, and Tony Hoare, an early innovator in sorting algorithms.

Another Microsoft Research winner, Jim Gray, who was honored for his work on database transaction processing in 1998, was lost at sea in his sailboat in 2007.

Thacker's work did not stop with the Xerox Alto and Ethernet, either. He also contributed to the development of another PARC project, the laser printer.

After departing PARC, he helped found Digital Equipment's Systems Research Center, where he spent another 13 years, and worked on the first multiprocessor workstation, according to a Microsoft biography.

In 1997, Thacker joined the then-fledgling Microsoft Research center. He spent two years helping to found the Microsoft Research facility in Oxford, England before returning to the San Francisco Bay Area to work at Microsoft's Palo Alto campus.

The Turing Award comes with a $250,000 prize. Thacker is 67.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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