Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Computing pioneer Alan Curtis Kay, creator of the "Smalltalk"
programming language, was born in 1940 in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Australia where
they lived for a few years before moving permanently back
to the United States. He learned to read by age three and
gained an early appreciation for music thanks to his mother,
a musician. He would later work as a professional jazz guitarist,
composer, and theatrical designer, as well as become adept
as a classical pipe organist.
Kay attended Bethany College in West Virginia but he was
expelled in 1961 for protesting the Jewish quota there. Briefly
he turned to music, giving guitar lessons to support himself
until he discovered his aptitude for computer programming.
He was assigned to work on an IBM 1401 computer project for
the U.S. Air Force, followed by his enrolling at the University
of Colorado where he completed his B.S. in Mathematics and
Molecular Biology in 1966.
He continued his studies at the University of Utah where
he received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering.
While a graduate student, he worked on the Utah Advanced Research
Projects Agency (ARPA) project where he developed one of the
most important concepts of his career — the idea of dynamic
Kay had come to the realization that computer users can
and should interact with these powerful machines in many different
ways — not just via text. He was one of the first scientists
to recognize that it was possible to represent computer objects
and capabilities as pictures. This idea he developed further
by introducing the concept of object orientation. It was this
work that resulted in Kay’s creation of the first graphical
object-oriented personal computer.
Also while working toward his Ph.D., which he completed
in 1968, Kay became very interested in the education of young
children and examined ways to build the new computing technologies
being introduced to the world into teaching methods. In 1969
he began teaching at the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory. There he started thinking about how to design
a small, compact, portable computer that kids could use and
carry around in place of paper. As a result of his efforts
in this vein, he created what is now known as the world’s
first portable notebook, the "Dynabook," which later
helped to evolve the laptop computer industry.
In 1970 Kay joined Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox
PARC). There he led a team working on the development of computer
workstations. This was where Kay developed a long list of
computing advances, not the least of which was Smalltalk,
the first object-oriented programming language. This lead
to the development of operating systems with a graphical user
interface, or GUI, as well as an entire genre of programming
languages known as Object Oriented Programming. GUI systems
were subsequently used in Apple's Macintosh operating system
as well as in Microsoft's Windows.
Also at Xerox PARC, research conducted by Kay and his team
led to the development of Ethernet, client-server network
architecture, desktop publishing, laser printing and many
other common computer technologies used all over the world
today. More recently, Kay's Smalltalk evolved an open-source
version known as Squeak dynamic media software. Squeak continues
to be a widely used, highly touted and user-friendly system.
After Kay left Xerox PARC in 1983, he was named a Chief
Scientist at Atari, where he worked for three years. He was
also a Fellow of Apple Computer for 12 years, from 1984-1997.
He then served for five years as Vice President of Research
and Development and Disney Fellow at The Walt Disney Company
in Los Angeles. In 2001, he founded a non-profit research
organization, the Viewpoints Research Institute, in Glendale,
As of 2002, Kay is a Senior Fellow at Hewlett Packard Labs,
researching and developing new software platforms for devices
and distributed applications based on open-source code. He
also serves as an adjunct professor of computer science at
UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Kay's numerous honors and distinctions include the 2003
Turing Award given by the Association for Computing Machinery,
the Computers & Communication Foundation Prize, the Lewis
Branscomb Technology Award, and the 2004 Charles Stark Draper
Prize. Also in 2004, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize for Advanced
Technology. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the
Royal Society of Arts.