Personal Computer, Xerox Alto (the “interim Dynabook”)

Dynabook was at the heart of Xerox PARC. Eventually realized as the Xerox Alto, it is essentially the first personal computer. Easy-to-use with a graphical interface, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISYG) programs, icons, the mouse, networking. Everything we take for granted today started as the Dynabook/Alto.


The Dynabook dates to Kay’s doctoral thesis and the first interview with Xerox. It is the underlying principle behind much of the work at Xerox PARC.

Kay envisioned a computer for just one person. His theoretical computer notebook would cost less than $500 “so that we could give it away in schools.” Compactness was important so “a kid could take it wherever he goes to hide.” Programming should be easy: “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” “A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’ device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) to the home.”

Xerox refused to fund the Dynabook, it was an inappropriate project since Xerox PARC was for offices, not children. Subsequently, Kay ignored them, sneaked away and, with the help of Thacker and Lampson, built what became the Alto. Kay referred to the Alto as “the interim Dynabook.”

Xerox: Computers Won’t Make Money

When finished, in 1973, Kay released it with a graphic of Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street, holding the letter C. Xerox built about 2,000 Alto’s for company use but never fully commercialized the computer. A Xerox executive told Taylor “the computer will never be as important to society as the copier.” The Dynabook, the personal computer, did not add shareholder value.

As of mid-2019, Xerox is worth $6.5 billion. Microsoft is worth $1.01 trillion. Apple is worth $874 billion.

Of course, Steve Jobs eventually visited Xerox PARC and rolled many ideas of the Alto into an Apple computer first called the Lisa and, later, the Macintosh. Soon after, Microsoft released Windows that looks suspiciously similar.

Console Gaming Systems

Console game systems are specialized computers that play games.

Ralph Baer came up with the idea of a video-game system that connects to televisions in 1966. Magnavox agreed to manufacture and distribute his seventh prototype, in 1971, branded the Odyssey. Magnavox sold about 350,000 units, at the then steep price of $100, before discontinuing it in 1978.

Nolan Bushnell, inspired by Odyssey, founded Atari. He built up his company, selling it in 1976 for about $30 million. In 1978, Atari fired Bushnell for “fighting like cats and dogs”.

Regardless, Atari went on to become wildly profitable but, eventually, sales declined due to poor games. However, Atari literally buried one game, “E.T.” in the middle of the night in a desert landfill due to poor quality. Specifically, the game consists of quickly falling into an inescapable hole.

Subsequently, various other game makers came and went. Japan-based Nintendo created a popular system. Eventually, scrappy startup Sega challenged Atari. Sony eventually took the market followed by Microsoft. Today, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all compete in the console gaming market.

Despite the first-mover advantage, neither Magnavox nor Baer was never a meaningful market participant in video games after the Odyssey. Eventually, Atari ceased making videogame consoles a the end of 1991.
Atari: Game Over, Full Documentary

Optical Disk (CD/DVD)

“If it was any good, IBM would have already invented it.”

James Russell

CD’s and DVD’s increase convenience from analog tapes for music and video. Users may instantly jump to songs or parts of a video. Unlike tapes, CD’s and DVD’s never wear out reducing replacement media cost.

David Paul Gregg

In 1961, Gregg claims to have invented and patented the core technology behind the CD and DVD, initially used for a videodisk. He was working for a Western Electric division but left to patent the technology on his own. Gregg formed Gauss Electrophysics and licensed the technology to the Music Corporation of America (MCA), the predecessor of Vivendi Universal and NBC Universal.

In 1976, MCA released the videodisk system as a consumer product: it was a flop. IBM recognized the potential of the disk for a storage device and partnered with Gauss, which changed its name to Discovision Associates (DVA).

In 1989, Pioneer bought DVA. In 1998, DVA apparently prevailed in a patent dispute, finding that CD’s infringed on a DVA patent. Gregg then disappeared and it is unclear what happened to him or his patents. Pioneer, Sony, and 3M all licensed DVA patents at one time or another.

James Russell

Russell also claims to have invented and patented core CD technology at Battelle, the same incubator that helped with the photocopy machine. Battelle licensed the technology to a venture capitalist for little money.

Those patents were acquired by a Canadian company, Optical Recording, that hired Russell for his expertise. Optical sued Sony, Phillips, and various music publishers, but fired Russell before the cases settled. Russell earned nothing but fame from his innovation, the CD and DVD.

“I didn’t really expect I was going to make a lot of money, because I recognized early on it was going to take a big company to put this all together and get it out on the market, because it was a revolutionary thing.”

James Russell

Light Emitting Diode (LED)

“New York City and you’re flying in an airplane and you see all these lights. And you think lights, lights, lights, lights, lights.”

Nick Holonyak

Nick Holonyak Jr.’s mom was an orphan. His dad was a coal miner. After a stint in the mine’s, Nick decided school sounded like a fine idea.

Holonyak was the first graduate student of two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, inventor of the semiconductor.

Holonyak worked at General Electric in the laser group. Lasers, to that time, were infrared and invisible to the naked eye. In 1962, Holonyak invented a Light Emitting Diode (LED) that emitted a red light, making the laser light visible. To this day, all red lasers are based on Holonyak’s work.

In 1963 Holonyak left GE for academia, joining the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. GE, along with other competitors, built a substantial LED business that still exists. Additionally, other companies went on to use the technology to improve devices from lasers to television and computer screens.

GE build from their own LED light business. However, with the innovation of LED light bulbs that last for decades, their core lighting business is destined for extinction as the need for replacement bulbs is expected to wane. As of 2019, GE has been working for years to sell the light-bulb business that dates back to Edison and launched the business. However, thanks to the longevity of LED lights, they so far failed to find a buyer.

Markedly, Holonyak has no received a Nobel Prize despite that the prize was awarded to the inventor of blue LED’s, a derivative of Holonyak’s work.

“They’re so damn cheap.”

Nick Holonyak


Early bell suits that contained air hoses allowed people to function underwater. These bell diving suits were heavy and dangerous. Later systems relied upon compressed air and regulators, yet these were still large and impractical.

In 1942 Nazi-occupied France, Frenchmen Cousteau and Gagnan invented the first practical underwater breathing apparatus, Aqua-Lung.

In their system, called open-circuit, the air is expelled as the diver breathes out. This is sub-optimal for commandos, because the bubbles may reveal their location. However, it functioned well enough that Cousteau used the system to fight fascist Italy.

In 1952, American Major Christian Lambertsen invented and patented a closed-circuit “rebreather” used by underwater commandos since it does not create bubbles. He named this Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA. Eventually, SCUBA became the term for both closed and open-circuit systems.

Cousteau made early underwater films during the war and increased his visibility after the war, becoming a well-known advocate ocean environmentalist.

High Fidelity Sound Recording & Playback


German engineer Eduard Schüller created and patented the Magnetophon, a high-fidelity audio recording and playback machine. Working for German company AEG, he patented the invention in December 1933. AEG was a leading electrical company that had evolved from the Deutsche Edison Gesellschaft, the German Edison Company.

Schüller perfected an earlier tape-recording device invented by Oberlin Smith, an American engineer, though Smith’s device never functioned well. Schüller used magnetic tape, invented and manufactured by Fritz Pfleumer and eventually owned by BASF, to record sound.

By the time of Shüller’s invention, AEG was a Nazi supporter. The AEG recording technology was unknown outside Nazi Germany.

Due to the high playback fidelity, recordings sounded live. Hitler routinely recorded himself and the recordings were portrayed as live speeches in one city, to make it sound like he was there, when was actually somewhere else. After the war, allies found 350 Hitler recordings.

Magnetophon worked well for speeches but not for music until Pfleumer, from German company BASF, invented a better type of recording tape.


After the war, US engineer Jack Mullin brought Schüller’s device, called a Magnetophon K (K stands for Koffer, or suitcase; portable), to the US. There it came to the attention of engineers at AMPEX, a US electrical engineering business then focused on small motor design.

AMPEX realized their expertise in small precision motors overlapped with the need to mass-produce the recording devices and built a highly successful audio recording business. AMPEX recorders marked the beginning of recorded radio broadcasts; before the Magnetophon commercial radio broadcasts were live. Decades later, AMPEX would innovate the video recorder and do the same for television broadcasts.

American Pop Culture

In the roaring ’20s, after WWI, Americans were coming into their own, developing a culture that was distinctly not European but also no longer a country of rugged settlers.


At 26, Walt Disney was on the train to success, literally. Riding from his upstart studio in Los Angeles to New York to finalize and increase a deal for a hit series about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

After arriving, he found he’d been double-crossed by a studio executive who secretly hired all but two of his animators away (the two refused to leave) and obtained rights to Oswald. Make the studio executive a partner in the studio Disney had created with his older brother, Roy, or find yourself destitute. Against his brother’s advice, Walt walked.

On the way back to Los Angeles, Walt realized he had to create a new character. There was a red ocean of animators at the time and they’d personalized every conceivable animal. Rather than focus on an animal people liked, he decided on one they didn’t, a rodent.

Walt drew a mouse with big ears, red velvet pants, and two white buttons. Mortimer Mouse, he told his wife, Lillian. No, she answered ー to stuffy ー Mickey Mouse. A different historian says it’s longtime Disney animator Ub Iwerks, who Disney met at his first job and who had refused to leave with the other animators, that dreamed up Micky. In any event, it doesn’t matter; they worked together and Disney was about to launch his personable rodent into a sustained success.

Disney Grows

Ub owned 20% of the studio but left, frustrated after an aggressive Walt pushed him to finish a new film faster. His studio folded after six years and he returned to Disney’s which, by that time, had grown. Disney was happy to have him back. Had Ub retained his 20% ownership, he’d have been a millionaire in the 1930s. Had his heirs retained it they’d be worth $50 billion in 2019. Ub sold his shares, when he quit, for $2,920.

Disney’s cartoons were fun but often had a dark side. In their first color cartoon (and one of the first ever made), Three Little Pigs, released May 1933, a photo hangs on the wall of the house of a pig that shows sausages and another of a ham; both have the caption “Father”. He followed up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, one of the first color full-length movies, in 1937 (financed by Giannini’s Bank of America and approved by Gianini personally). Snow White earned $8.5 million; tickets cost ten cents.

Steamboat Willie

Over the years, Disney had its ups and downs, but mostly ups. They created a new type of theme park and moved into live-action films and TV. As of 2019, the firm has $60 billion per year in revenue and they are the studio executives.

FM Radio


In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” cathode ray tube. However, by his own admission, saw no use for it in radio.

During his time at Columbia, Armstrong worked with Audion tubes and realized they could recycle a radio signal, amplifying it by sending it repeatedly through the tube. Further, by reversing the process, Armstrong could amplify the reception of a radio signal as well.

de Forest, by his own admission, was focused on using the tube to amplify telephone signals. He had no interest in radio signals.

Patent War

Companies licensed the tube from both Armstrong and de Forest then fought one another. AT&T initially supported de Forest whereas RCA supported Armstrong. At one point, due to licensing, Armstrong was the largest shareholder in RCA. But RCA eventually decided to side with de Forest, abandoning Armstrong, who continued his lawsuits.

Litigation continued with de Forest losing all the early rounds. Eventually, he appended his initial tube patent to focus not specifically on radio waves but, more generally, on electricity, and won.

The definitive Supreme Court opinion issued in 1932. The third Supreme Court decision in the case, issued two decades after the patent applications were filed, suggests the Court was exhausted by the ongoing litigation. The Court reasoned the patent holder is whomever first makes a thing, not who innovates various uses from it (a position that would change, later, as the law and the Court changed). There is an undertone that Armstrong and de Forest should have settled the case long ago and cross-licensed the technology.

FM Radio

During this time Armstrong extended uses for the tube, inventing FM that had much cleaner sound than AM. Armstrong offered the FM patent to his old friend Sarnoff, who had risen to become CEO of RCA and creator of the National Broadcasting Corporation. Sarnoff saw FM as an enormous breakthrough but, during the Depression, did not think buyers would pay for new receivers and did not want to incur the expense of new transmitters.

RCA had first right of refusal for the technology but failed to strike a deal. Eventually, Armstrong commercialized his radios, selling $5 millions of RCA shares and created a company to compete with RCA and its broadcasters. His company had $2M/year in revenue but was spending as much on expansion.

With never-ending patent battles, and no money left ー and obsessed on the court cases ー his wife of 31 years left him on Jan. 1, 1954. He soon after committed suicide at age 63. The case did not definitively end until Oct. 9, 1967, after a Supreme Court forced the last settlement, by Motorola.

Besides FM radio, Armstrong also invented the Superheterodyne receiver, that used a series of filters to more accurately and cleanly tune into a radio station.


Before Farnsworth, there were various types of mechanical TV that used spinning disks (Nipkow disks) and electrical transmitters, none of which ever gained traction. John Logie Baird invented the most widely known mechanical TV.

Electrical Television

Farnsworth had a small group of innovators, who invested $25,000. They eventually told him to give up so he and his team ー he was self-taught, but his co-innovators were from top schools, including MIT ー worked for free. On Sept. 7, 1927, they managed to televise movement of a single line. They followed up by televising movies a mile. Their lab was in LA.

Farnsworth invented electronic television and filed for a patent Jan. 7, 1927. Farnsworth received two patents in Aug. 1930, one for the camera and another for the receiver.

Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin was working for RCA bigwig David Sarnoff (see Armstrong) on the east coast. Farnsworth had an initial investment of $100,000 and virtually unlimited future funding. Eventually, Zworkin requested a visit to Farnsworth’s lab.

RCA Steals Farnsworth’s Technology

Farnsworth’s motives for allowing them in were unclear; historians speculate they thought Zworkin and RCA (or Westinghouse, his prior employer) would license his technology and patents rather than insist on buying the company. Significantly, Farnsworth did not want to sell his company. In April 1931, Sarnoff visited Farnsworth’ lab.

Notwithstanding no real IP, Zworkin had filed a patent in 1923 for an unfinished television. Eventually, in 1935, patent examiners declared Zworykin’s application did not describe a workable innovation leaving Farnsworth the sole patent holder for television.

Indeed, Sarnoff didn’t care and simply ignored the patents. Eventually, WWII eventually started and no television sets were sold. After the war, RCA licensed the patents for $1 million plus a royalty, though the patents were close to expiration. Farnsworth, the innovator of television, never made money from television and died, poor, in 1971.

Sound Over Radio

After a series of other innovations involving radio, Fessenden invented sound over radio in 1906. Before then radio typically carried Morse Code signals. He created a company, NESCO, that struggled with IP, financing, and people issues.

The owners, including Fessenden, hoped to sell the company to AT&T or GE but that deal did not close. In 1910, the NESCO partnership broke down; Fessenden was ousted Jan. 8, 1911. Fessenden sued his ex-partners and RCA, that had eventually acquired the company including his patents in a deal he apparently did not approve of.

After 15 years of litigation Fessenden settled with RCA for $500K, albeit it with $200K of legal fees, leaving him $300K ($4.3M in 2018 dollars). Radio, with sound

de Forest Audion tubes are still in use to broadcast AM radio. While de Forest invented the Audion tube, it is Edwin Armstrong who figured out, and patented (unsuccessfully, in hindsight), its use as a radio transmitter and receiver. [See FM Radio for more detail.]