‘Extraordinary’ Microsoft engineer Charles Thacker inspired the PC revolution

Obituary: Charles Thacker, who helped usher in the modern personal computer as the designer of the Xerox Alto computer and worked at Microsoft Research for 20 years, died at his Palo Alto, California, home recently.

Before Microsoft and Apple helped put a computer on every desktop, there had to be a personal computer that people would want to own in the first place.

That’s where Charles Thacker came in more than 40 years ago.

Mr. Thacker, who helped usher in the modern personal computer as the designer of the Xerox Alto computer, died at his Palo Alto, California, home last week. He was 74.

The Alto, released in 1973, introduced a graphical user interface that could be manipulated by a mouse, starting the break from a text-based user interface to an easier-to-use alternative.

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Though the device wasn’t a commercial success, it inspired the personal-computer revolution of the next 30 years. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates each borrowed from the Alto’s concepts for the Macintosh and Windows operating systems.

Like many of the relatively young core of engineers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Mr. Thacker would go on to work for other pioneering computing companies. That includes a 20-year stint beginning in 1997 at Microsoft Research, where his projects included tablet computers, circuits and data-center networking.

“He was just an extraordinary engineer,” said Butler Lampson, who worked with Mr. Thacker for almost 40 years, including at Xerox PARC and at Microsoft, where Lampson now is a technical fellow with the company’s Boston-area lab.

“His ability to see what was important to do, and also the breadth of his coverage. He could do everything from circuit design all the way through hardware architecture and programming and user-interface design.”

Mr. Thacker, like many aspiring physicists and mathematicians in the 1960s, was drawn to…

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