The tension between corporate exigencies and the instincts of geniuses is at the heart of the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which is in turn at the heart of any story about the birth of the modern technology business. The accepted wisdom about PARC is that Xerox blew it, big time. Having invented the graphical user interface, the mouse, hypertext, the laser printer, and the local area network, among other things, it failed to make a business out of them and instead watched as Apple, Microsoft, 3Com, Adobe, and others made many billions off its work. This point of view is encapsulated in Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer, by Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander. But a more balanced account of what happened at PARC can be found in Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, by Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik. A tremendously smart writer, Hiltzik argues that there is no way a big company like Xerox could have done much with its frighteningly productive but impossible-to-manage band of brainiacs in Palo Alto.
Xerox, in fact, is the subject of one of the best narratives of invention and business triumph I’ve ever read, a surprisingly unheralded book by David Owen called Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine. This is a singular story, detached in almost every way from the main currents of the technology world, and that’s in part because Carlson found his breakthrough by deliberately looking where other people weren’t. As a patent examiner, Carlson was acutely aware of the need for a machine that could easily make copies. He set out to find one, and eventually stumbled onto the unique properties of the element selenium, which conducts electricity only when light is shined on it, and from there developed the process known as xerography. No mainstream company would touch it — IBM famously hired A.D. Little to do a market study that concluded that only a few hundred of the machines could ever be sold — and Carlson finally hooked up with an obscure photographic paper firm called Haloid. The most entertaining bits concern Haloid’s efforts to bring the tricky technology to market, and Owen’s writing far outshines what’s typical for the genre.
The same can be said for Tracy Kidder and The Soul of a New Machine, which recounts just exactly what goes into building a major new computer system — in this case a Data General minicomputer. Written in 1981 to track a time, now nearly forgotten, when the minicomputer was all the rage, Kidder’s book remains one of the best accounts of what it’s like to be working inside a cutting-edge technology company.
Finally, for those who want to round out their knowledge of the origins of the contemporary tech business, there is Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, by New York Times reporter Katie Hafner and her late husband, Matthew Lyon. Although some of the history is a bit arcane and keeping track of the various personalities can get tricky, you can’t help but admire the dedication and ingenuity of the men who created the infrastructure that today we all take for granted. Among other things, the Internet was a great triumph of government-led innovation, which is easy to forget in an age when even people who have made huge fortunes from the Internet routinely denigrate the public sector. (Hafner, incidentally, was once married to John Markoff; they collaborated on yet another book worth reading, Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier.)