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the story of the Xerox Star System

the story of our old Xerox Star System Those of us who have been around the computer industry for a few decades remember the bad old days of primitive computer systems and dyfunctional documentation. Here's a reminiscence about the famous Xerox Star system. The Xerox Star and its antecedents were the world's first commercial GUI computers and the inspiration for the Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, etc. I'm a long-time professor in the Department of Technical Communication at the University of Washington. In 1985, a few faculty members had first-generation IBM PCs in their offices and a few had Macs at home. There were no computers for students to use, not until the Xerox Corporation gave us a complete Xerox Star system: 8 workstations, a file server, and all the software. This was a powerful GUI system, back when the Mac was a toy-like computer with only a floppy drive. The Xerox workstations had a 40 MB hard drive plus a drive for 8-inch 166 KB floppies. The software included a word processor with both a serif and a sans serif font. There was also a graphics package, some kind of database, and probably other apps that I%u2019ve forgotten about. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the system was that it was fully networked. The file server, with its extraordinary 600 MB hard drive, looked like a washing machine and rumbled liked one. The data was actually stored on a heavy 3-tiered platter that you lowered into the file server. Besides the University of Washington, about the only organizations in the Puget Sound area with comparable systems were Boeing, Washington State Government, one or two banks, and the nuclear submarine base at Bangor. We were always giving tours of the computer lab. The system came with a 3-shelf bookcase. I think 3 feet wide. So we're talking 9 feet of shelf space. The shelves were packed tight with thick loose-leaf manuals. It was quite a sight. The manuals crossed referenced each other extensively, and for many fairly ordinary tasks, you needed to get information from two or even three of the manuals. The students worked collaboratively with the manuals at a table. There might be two or three students consulting two or three manuals, and they would shout steps to another student or two sitting at a workstation. The GUI interface was lacking in refinement, to say the least. You had to navigate down about 6 levels to find the Blank Document icon. Many system messages appeared on the VERY top line of the big curved monitor, so you had to be looking closely to see the thin line of text show up. Often, you'd stand up so you could look down at a message. The help system was called "N.S. Hardy," because N.S. Hardy wrote it. I made an inquiry to find that out. The optical mice were not at all precise so it was hard to position the cursor. Also, they broke so often that the Xerox hardware support guy (we also had a software support guy), used to leave us with 10 of them when he came to service the machines. For some administrative tasks, the system administrator had to type in the following sentence before starting: "I accept the risk." Several years after we had the system, Xerox gave us software for a routine system upgrade where if you made one minor deviation from the procedure, you lost all your data. We lost EVERYTHING. (I knew it was bad when the system administrator came into my office crying.) The bug was particularly nasty because it wiped the data off any back-up platters as soon as they were installed in the file server. Many Xerox customers lost all their data as did several Xerox facilities. By the late 80s, PC and Macs had evolved greatly, and you could get Xerox workstations for free from many companies if you would pay for the shipping. The circuit boards, however, were unusually pretty and artists used them to make jewelry.
David K. Farkas - OK, Joe, here's the story of our old Xerox Star System