George Pake

Godfather of the computer revolution
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George Edward Pake, research and educational administrator, and physicist: born Jeffersonville, Ohio 1 April 1924; Assistant Professor of Physics, Washington University, St Louis, 1948-52, Associate Professor 1952-53, Professor 1953-56, 1962-69, Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of Physics 1969-70; Professor of Physics, Stanford University 1956-62; vice-president of research, Xerox Corporation, 1970-1986; director, Institute for Research on Learning 1986-88 (Emeritus); married (three sons, one daughter); died Tucson, Arizona 4 March 2004.

If it had not been for George Pake, the history of computing might have taken a very different path. Pake was director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California where many of today's technologies of computing were invented - above all the graphical user interface that enables computer users to pull down menus and push objects around a virtual world with the click of a mouse.

George Pake was born in Jefferson, Ohio, in 1924. He graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1945, and completed a PhD degree in nuclear resonance at Harvard University three years later.

He then became an assistant professor at Washington University in St Louis. Although he became the author of three books and more than 50 scientific papers, research was not Pake's forte. He showed an exceptional gift for administration, becoming departmental chair at the age of 30 and eventually executive vice-chancellor and provost of the university.

In 1970 the Xerox Corporation, the dominant maker of photocopying machines, was experiencing intense competition from Japanese manufacturers. The corporation decided to invest in a research facility to generate new products to reduce its dependence on the ageing technology of photocopiers. Pake was offered the position of research director, and he persuaded the company to create a "multidisciplinary Utopia" and locate it in Silicon Valley near Stanford University. Under his tenure, the Palo Alto Research Center - universally known as Xerox PARC - became a legend of computer history.

Pake recruited computer scientists, psychologists and engineers to create "the architecture of information". Some of the recruits were already leaders in their field, others became so. Pake took little direct part in research, modestly describing his role as hiring good people "and adjusting budgets . . . to give selective encouragement."

His genius was as a social and political animal. He persuaded scientists to invest their careers in multidisciplinary teams with loose objectives, he conditioned corporate executives not to expect short-term results, and he balanced the conflicting interests of strong-minded individuals.

Some 10 years later the corporation produced a path-breaking desktop computer, the Xerox Star, that took everyone's breath away when it was launched at the National Computer Conference in May 1981. But at $40,000, the machine was too expensive for ordinary offices, and after negligible sales Xerox executives axed it. The Xerox Star was ahead of its time, and corporate executives lacked the vision to see that technology was rapidly falling in price and such computers would soon be affordable. Three years later, the Apple Macintosh followed where the Xerox Star had led, and brought user-friendly computing to the masses for less than $2,000.

Pake held research administration posts with Xerox until 1986. His quiet, unassuming style of "managing by walking around" nurtured not only the birth of user-friendly computing, but also many less visible but essential technologies for modern computing - such as laser printers, computer typesetting, client-server architectures, local networks, what-you-see-is-what-you-get word processing, page mark-up languages, expert systems, speech recognition, and many more. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan presented Pake with the National Medal of Science, the United States' highest scientific honour.

After leaving Xerox, Pake became founding director of the Institute for Research on Learning, dedicated to the exploration of education as a social activity. He remained director emeritus until the time of his death.

Martin Campbell-Kelly