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Charles P. 'Chuck' Thacker: 1943 – 2017

Microsoft researcher Charles P. Thacker, awarded the 2009 ACM A.M. Turing Award in recognition of his pioneering design and realization of the first modern personal computer, and for his contributions to Ethernet and the tablet computer, died Monday, June 12, at the age of 74, after a brief illness.

Thacker, born in Pasadena, CA, on Feb. 26, 1943, earned his bachelor of science degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) in 1967.


In 1968, Thacker joined UC Berkeley's "Project Genie" to finance a graduate degree in physics. Instead, he recalled, "I went to work for this computer project," which the Berkeley Time-sharing System, commercialized by Scientific Data Systems as the SDS 940.

Thacker joined Butler Lampson (recipient of the 1992 ACM A.M. Turing Award) and others to launch the startup Berkeley Computer Corporation (BCC). While BCC was not successful, this group became the core technologists of the Computer Systems Laboratory at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Thacker spent the 1970s and 1980s at PARC. There, he led the project that developed the Xerox Alto personal computer system, the first computer designed from the ground up to support an operating system based on a graphical user interface. The hardware of the Alto was designed mostly by Thacker, with Lampson developing its software.

He also is credited as co-inventor (along with Robert Metcalfe, David Boggs, and Lampson) of the Ethernet family of networking technologies, developed at PARC between 1973 and 1974.

In 1983, Thacker was part of the group of computer scientists led by Robert Taylor (manager of PARC's Computer Science Laboratory) that left PARC to found the Systems Research Center (SRC) of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC). During his tenure there, Thacker developed Firefly, one of the first multiprocessor workstation systems.

"I have designed chips, I can design logic, I can design systems, and I can write software up to and including user interfaces."

In 1997, he joined Microsoft Research, where he helped establish Microsoft Research Cambridge at England's University of Cambridge.

Returning to the U.S., Thacker designed the hardware for Microsoft's Tablet PC, based on PARC's "interim Dyna-book" (which was never built), and the Lectrice, a pen-based hand-held computer prototype developed at DEC SRC.

In 1984, Thacker, Lampson, and Taylor received the ACM Software Systems Award "for conceiving and guiding the development of the Xerox Alto System, which clearly demonstrates that a distributed personal computer system could provide a desirable and practical alternative to time-sharing." They also were named ACM Fellows in 1994 in recognition of that work.

In 2004, the National Academy of Engineering awarded Thacker, along with Alan C. Kay, Lampson, and Taylor, its Charles Stark Draper Prize "for the vision, conception, and development of the first practical networked personal computers."

In 2007, Thacker was awarded the IEEE John von Neumann Medal for his "central role in the creation of the personal computer and the development of networked computer systems."

In 2010, ACM chose Thacker to receive the 2009 ACM A.M. Turing Award "for the pioneering design and realization of the first modern personal computer—the Alto at Xerox PARC—and seminal inventions and contributions to local area networks (including the Ethernet), multiprocessor workstations, snooping cache coherence protocols, and tablet personal computers."

In an interview in the July 2010 issue of Communications, Thacker said, "I can lurk at a lot of different levels. I have designed chips, I can design logic, I can design systems, and I can write software up to and including user interfaces." He said his work on Ethernet at PARC, and on Firefly and fault-tolerant networks at DEC, "have a common thread, which is they are part of a distributed system—they don't stand in isolation." The Alto, he recalled, was a "nice" single-user machine, but its "real power" was unleashed by networking.

Thacker said the "secrets for his decades of continual success" included: strive for simplicity, build a kit of reusable tools, insist on sound specifications, think broadly, and make sure your collaborators also succeed.

In 2010, ACM then-president Wendy Hall said Thacker's "contributions have earned him a reputation as one of the most distinguished computer systems engineers in the history of the field. His enduring achievements—from his initial innovations on the PC to his leadership in hardware development of the multiprocessor workstation to his role in developing the tablet PC—have profoundly affected the course of modern computing."

Communications editor-in-chief Andrew A. Chien observed, "Chuck not only made seminal contributions to computer architecture, but was a tremendous inspiration to the computer systems community through the beautiful simplicity of his designs and generous mentoring of young researchers and new ideas."

Lawrence M. Fisher

©2017 ACM  0001-0782/17/08

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