Use the 1970s Xerox Alto in your browser.

PARC / Computer History Museum

In 1973, Xerox introduced the Alto, a major research computer that set the stage for modern PCs using a bitmapped graphical interface, mouse, and local networking. Thanks to the emulator, you can mimic Alto in your browser. But first, let’s see why Alto was special.

Great influence.

In 1973, engineers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) developed a revolutionary computer called the Xerox Alto that developed a mouse-based graphical user interface (GUI), bitmap graphics, local networking, and laser printing. , Network computer gaming, object-oriented software development, and more.

Alto’s bitmapped display and Paper White portrait monitor make it an ideal platform for innovations in computer document creation, including the first WYSIWYG (“You get what you see”) word processors that support multiple fonts. What It also hosted early drawing programs and font editors who would revolutionize publishing later.

When a Xerox PARC engineer invented the laser printer in the early 1970’s, a networked pool of Alto computers could distribute high-quality printers. And thanks to Ethernet (also invented in PARC), a local group of Alto computers can exchange files, share an Arpanet connection, or even play games against each other.

Although the Xerox Alto was slow to take advantage of the amazing inventions, he was not ashamed to show them. In the 1970s, many researchers used reverse units at universities (and visitors to other companies), and computers influenced the creation of many early single-user graphical workstations. And in a 1979 commercial, Xerox introduced Alto’s capabilities, including email and network printing, to the public.

Most famously, Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC in 1979 and believed that Xerox was the key to the future of personal computing. The inspiration led to the release of the Apple Lisa in 1983 and the Macintosh the following year.

In less than a decade, Xerox has produced more than 2,000 Alto units in two models (Alto I and Alto II), but the computer has never been officially sold. In addition to Xerox’s internal use, Xerox donated 50 units to universities around the United States in 1979, and several were used in the White House during Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Related: Internet base: TCP / IP is 40 years old

Xerox Alto Specs

Considering its development in 1972, it is not surprising that the Alto did not use a microprocessor. Instead, it used a custom ALU with several TI 74181 chips. A look at the basic features of Alto.

  • Custom 16-bit CPU running at 5.8 MHz.
  • 128 to 512 KB RAM.
  • A monochrome (black or white only) 606 × 808 pixel bit mapped raster display on vertical oriented full page CRT monitor
  • Storage provided on 2.5 MB removable hard disk cartridge.
  • Mouse with three buttons.
  • Five key chording sets.
  • Modular keyboard.

Test yourself upside down today.

Using just one web browser, you can try using Vintage Xerox Alto software without the need to download any special software. This feat comes thanks to an amazing emulator called ContrAltoJS created by the Living Computer Museum and presented in JavaScript by Washington-based programmer Seth Morabito.

The battle of the maze is raging on a Xerox Alto.
Labyrinth War Running on Xerox Alto Emulator.

To get started, visit the ContrAltoJS website in any modern web browser (such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge). Under the large rectangle (which represents the Virtual Alto screen), use the drop-down menu to select the disk image. This is equivalent to inserting a disc cartridge into a real alto.

For example, select “games.dsk” to load a disc full of games. Click “Boot” when you are ready to start the emulator.

Select the disk image and click. "boot."

When the emulator boots, place your mouse cursor over the emulator window to focus your mouse and keyboard input in the duplicate alto. Can you type “?” To view a catalog of programs stored on disk image, and you can usually type the file name (and press Enter) to play it.

For example, running. Star Trek On the games disc, type “track” and press Enter on the command line, and the game will load. There are dozens more games to try, some developed in the 1980s. The Morabito Emulator page includes additional instructions on how to load Small Talk, for example.

Related: Why are video game emulators so important?

Wait, it’s nothing like Mac.

Discovering the Xerox Alto software, you can see that Alto’s operating system (called “Alto Executive”) is not GUI based. Instead, you need to type a command to use it. Also, the preferred Alto File Manager is based on Neptune, Graphical and Mouse, but does not have icons or any kind of local interface. There is a folder to be found – what gives?

Although much has been written about Xerox Alto’s influence on Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh computer systems, the Alto did not introduce the metaphor of desktop file management – with icons, folders, and local file browsing that Apple computers Borrowed and raised. Instead, the award goes to the Xerox Star 8010 Information System’s ViewPoint operating system, which was launched in 1981. Although the Star was the first commercial computer based on GUI, it has been overlooked in history books due to its relative failure in the market.

Neptune File Manager for Xerox Alto.
Xerox Alto’s Neptune file manager, with no icons visible.

(Interestingly, Neptune File Manager looks similar to the Mac used in Microsoft Windows before Windows 95.)

Still, you can see that the development of GUI was not a one-time thing, but it was a continuation of the innovation that continues today. Every step along the way (from NLS, Alto, Star, Lisa, Mac, and beyond) added features and complexity. But undoubtedly, the reverse was an important step where we are today.

If you want to know more about Xerox Alto and its development in PARC, we highly recommend checking out the book. Electricity dealer By Michael A. Hilzk For now, play with Alto Emulator and try some legendary software for yourself. Enjoy yourself!

Related: Macintosh System 1: How was Apple’s Mac OS 1.0?

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