Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: SUNDAY, August 14, 1994 TAG: 9408150033 SECTION: VIRGINIA PAGE: A-1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: By DWAYNE YANCEY STAFF WRITER DATELINE: HOT SPRINGS NOTE: BELOW LENGTH: Long
In these parts, Dan Ingalls Jr. is best known as the last of a long line of his family to run The Homestead resort.
Which is a little like saying that in Ohio, the Wright Brothers are still best remembered for being darn good bicycle mechanics.
Virginians are just so enamored of tradition, though, that when the Ingalls family - looking to hand over management of their financially troubled resort to a new generation - called Dan home from California in 1987 to take up his hereditary obligation, nobody here paid much attention to precisely what he was doing out there.
"Something with computers," was how it was usually described.
And the soft-spoken Ingalls himself was too humble - or too busy with the task of trying to save the resort - to brag much about what he'd been doing in Silicon Valley for the previous two decades.
That "something with computers," as it turns out, was no small something.
Hold onto your hard drives: In the research labs of Silicon Valley, the fellow who ran The Homestead until last year is still regarded as one of the great minds of the computer world - a pioneer who was not just present at the creation of the personal computer in the mid-1970s, but a key player in its development.
"A wizard," the head of Sun Microsystems' lab, one of the industry's biggest, calls him.
You're familiar with "pull-down menus" and "overlapping windows," the computer features that allow work with more than one electronic "document" at once, even shuffle them around on the screen like real sheets of paper on a desk? Ingalls developed those - and more.
Forget the myth of Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the hobbyists who built a computer - and a company called Apple - in their parents' garage. They just borrowed a lot of microchips, and ideas.
In computing circles, the name that evokes the most awe is that of Alan Kay, often remembered as the "father of the personal computer," a sobriquet he disdains.
Kay headed the research team at the famous Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the mid-1970s that made most of the technological breakthroughs that led to the modern personal computer - and Ingalls "was one of the seminal figures" in his lab, Kay says.
"Science has a better way of allocating credit than journalism does," he says. "Journalists are extremely attracted to the single-inventor theory. In the journalism world, I am often credited as the inventor of almost everything to do with the PC, which is not true."
To hear Kay tell it, Ingalls was the engineer who did the most important work.
Take overlapping windows, for instance.
"I invented the idea of overlapping windows," Kay says, "but Dan was one of the first implementers. He became more and more the designer."
Ingalls also co-invented, with Kay and another scientist, a new computer language that changed the way computers are programmed, and powered the "graphical interfaces" - the "point the cursor at the symbol and click" format - now common with today's personal computers.
Xerox, though, was infamous for not knowing what to do with its scientists' creations. Instead, Xerox invited a young entrepreneur to take a then-controversial - and now legendary - tour of its labs in 1979 to see what he made of the breakthroughs.
Steven Jobs' tour of Xerox has been called the "signal event in the history of personal computing." When Jobs saw what Ingalls and the rest of Kay's team had done, he was blown away. He promptly scrapped his previous designs and instead duplicated, then commercialized, the Xerox features - and the personal computer as we know it was born.
"If Dan hadn't built them, Steven Jobs would never have seen any kind of demonstration and the MacIntosh would never have been built," Kay says.
But wait, there's more.
"I'd say Dan is one of fewer than 10, maybe fewer than five, founding fathers of what we know as the personal computer today," says Tom Stambaugh, a software engineer in Massachusetts who is familiar with Ingalls' work. "Children two centuries from now will recognize his name the way we recognize Galileo or Leonardo da Vinci. He really is in that category."
And this is the guy who's spent the past six years worrying about whether there were enough ham biscuits on the Sunday brunch buffet?
It's been almost a year since the Ingalls family bowed to financial realities and agreed to sell The Homestead to Dallas-based Club Resorts Inc. If there's any sadness, Dan Ingalls doesn't show it. He radiates the aura of a man liberated from a difficult burden. He's even grown a beard - an adornment forbidden by Homestead rules as a "major turn-off" in the hotel business.
Ingalls is the first to admit he was not a hotel manager at heart.
"I like research," he says. "My major in college [Harvard '66] was physics. I've always considered myself to be an inventor, and computer software was just the most wonderful medium for invention, because you can have an idea in the morning and have production in the afternoon and the only thing keeping you from reaching 1 million people is copying a file."
Research also can be a rather solitary pursuit - in contrast to the family business in the hospitality industry. "A complete mismatch," Kay says fondly.
Ingalls concedes "the whole human contact you have with the customer" is different in the hotel business. "But at least I grew up around it, so that part came reasonably naturally to me. If I hadn't had that background, it would have done me in. I'm a scientist."
Ingalls was a doctoral student at Stanford in the early 1970s when he went to work at the Xerox labs. Kay was assembling a team whose goal was to shrink the computer from hulking, whirring mainframes that occupied entire basements and had to be tended by a phalanx of technicians to something the size of a book that even a child could use.
Many scientists thought they were fools.
"It was," Psychology Today once wrote, "an outpost in uncharted territory, a frontier town of the mind populated by youngish, rough-and-ready scientists attracted by an almost blank check invitation to exploit what computers could become."
"In that group, he was one of the technological leaders," says Peter Deutsch, a former colleague from the Xerox days who now heads his own software company in Menlo Park, Calif. "It was really Alan first and then Dan and I don't know who it would be after Dan."
The key to Xerox's breakthrough in personal computers was "a technological burst," says Bert Sutherland, then Kay's boss and now head of the Sun Microsystems' lab in Mountain View, Calif. "And Dan did the hard-core nitty-gritty coding that made it all work."
Being able to single out one person that way is quite unusual in the computer industry, Stambaugh says. "Hard science has gotten to the point where it's difficult for one person to make a difference. One of the things that makes computers unique is that it's where science and creativity and artistry all come together." Ingalls excelled at each.
Former colleagues recall his intuitiveness. "One of the things I always admired about Dan was he could just look at a problem and do it," says Adele Goldberg, now chairman of ParcPlace Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif. She recalls that Ingalls once designed a computer program that could scan Sanskrit and reproduce the letters of the Indian language on the screen - an astonishing innovation in the 1970s when scientists were having enough trouble getting computers to work in English.
"He gave a presentation at the research center and someone in the audience asked Dan 'How'd you do it? It's so hard.' And he answered, 'I don't know. You just do it and it's done.'"
Ingalls' co-workers were so awestruck by his self-effacing approach that, for a time, "you just do it and it's done" became the Xerox team's unofficial motto.
The details of "bit-mapping" and "bitblt" and "RasterOp" and the other programming techniques Ingalls pioneered are so painfully arcane that even some computer-types grimace when the subjects come up. The computer language he co-invented - called "Smalltalk - is pretty complicated stuff, too.
Here's the "Computer Languages for Dummies" version:
Until recently, the dominant computer languages were FORTRAN and COBOL, so-called "procedural" languages that required each program to be written from scratch with binary code, a tedious and time-consuming process.
In the mid-1970s, though, Ingalls and others experimented with a new way of writing languages, called "object-oriented programming," which instead uses prefabricated chunks of code to simplify and speed up the process of writing programs.
Such prefabricated languages constitute a "revolution" in the computer programming field, says University of Rochester computer scientist Michael Scott. Smalltalk itself has remained a "fringe" language until recently, favored mostly by academics because it was considered too far ahead of its time.
Yet, Smalltalk, Scott says, has been "incredibly influential" on the evolution of other programming languages. Indeed, it's such "object-oriented" programming that enabled the other computer breakthroughs developed in the Xerox labs to work as easily as they do. "All the graphical interfaces today began with Dan's work," Stambaugh says. "None of that would have happened without Dan."
Not that Ingalls has profited from this; much of the work at the Xerox labs never was patented, a corporate omission now generally regarded as a phenomenal error. "If I got a penny for every pull-down menu," he observes, "I'd be a rich man."
Instead, Ingalls was showered with awards, including one for "contributions to computer science before the age of 30," the computer world's equivalent of a Rookie of the Year Award. "It was a magical time," Ingalls says. "It was easy to do great stuff," because the technology was evolving so rapidly.
And start-up companies were beginning to outmaneuver the sluggish Xerox in the marketplace. In time, many of the best Xerox researchers, including Kay himself, migrated to Apple, a company that made marketing the personal computer into a corporate crusade. Ingalls joined them in 1984. As one of Apple's principal engineers in the "advanced technology group," Ingalls continued working on new ways to make programming simpler - and therefore more accessible to nonprogrammers.
In 1987, though, it was tradition, not innovation, that beckoned. The Ingalls family had been investors in The Homestead since it was founded in 1890; in time, they became the majority stockholders. But in 1985, the hotel manager abruptly left and there was a brisk turnover among other senior staff. The Homestead also was having trouble financially in a market saturated with high-priced resorts. Ingalls' father, who taught Sanskrit at Harvard, was forced to commute to Hot Springs on weekends to oversee the business. That clearly wouldn't do.
The family called Dan home from California to take charge. "There was a need for someone a bit younger who could continue the family tradition," Ingalls says.
It was not an easy move. "I was on a great career path," he says. "I came here and started making half of what I made there and working twice as hard."
Ingalls' friends in the computer industry were dumbstruck.
"He was a wizard," Sutherland says. "He could sit down at a keyboard and make it do magnificent things. I didn't think he'd give it up to go back and run a hotel. It was quite mind-boggling. He was that rare a talent."
"It's like removing one of the bright stars from the firmament," Kay says. "He's irreplaceable."
Apple's chairman at the time, John Sculley, tried to talk Ingalls into staying. "Don't do that," he implored. "We'll find somebody to run The Homestead for you."
Kay even made a trip to Hot Springs, challenging Ingalls to a tennis match, with his career riding on the outcome. "If I won, he'd have to come back. I did and he didn't come back. He welshed on me." Ingalls may not have been serious about the wager, but Kay insists he was.
It soon became apparent to Ingalls, though, that what the Homestead needed was not new blood, but new money. "It was clear the resort needed an infusion of capital and improvements that was beyond the resources of my family, so we started looking for a partner." Club Resorts fit that bill.
Ingalls notes the irony of his tenure at The Homestead; he was brought back to provide stability. "But what the business needed was to really change. That's what's so wonderful about the new owners. They can make changes and make them with conviction. I could make changes, but I didn't have the breadth of experience."
A year later, though, Dan Ingalls is plunging back into the computer world. A longtime weather buff, he's designed a computerized weather-monitoring device he's started marketing through a two-person company he calls Weather Dimensions.
He's also "telecommuting," via computer modem and long-distance telephone lines, to Silicon Valley. Ingalls has signed on with a hot new outfit there called Interval Research, which is attempting to sign up the industry's "deep thinkers" to plot the next big leap in technology. "It's regarded as one of the most interesting places to work," Kay says.
Consumers inundated with new gadgets find it hard to believe, but Kay and other computer-designers lament that the fundamental technology behind computers hasn't changed much since he and Ingalls were at Xerox. "We had no idea commercialization would be such a drag" on innovation, Kay says. "Really, nothing has changed since 1980."
That means, colleagues say, it's easy for Ingalls to jump back into programming work after a seven-year absence. "You never lose the ability," Deutsch says. "I think it's quite possible he'll make some other significant contributions."
Ingalls is returning to the computer field just as many of his original ideas are emerging triumphant. The "object-oriented programming" he worked on is now elbowing the old-style computer languages out of the market. "It is the future of computer programming," says Scott, the University of Rochester computer scientist.
Even Ingalls' Smalltalk language finally is being recognized, and is coming into wider use - from American Airlines to the Central Intelligence Agency to Wall Street brokerage houses. Computerworld magazine predicts that by 1997 some 30 percent of the computer market will run on the language Ingalls co-invented (but, like those overlapping windows, doesn't profit from).
Ingalls says he's glad to be back at the computer keyboard. "I'm in a business I understand and have total control of now."