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What It Was Like To Work At The Most Important R&D Lab Of The Past 50 Years

For many, Xerox PARC is the R&D center that paved the way for the likes of Apple, IBM, and Adobe. For Maureen Stone, it was her first job.

What It Was Like To Work At The Most Important R&D Lab Of The Past 50 Years

[All Photos: courtesy Maureen Stone ]

In the 1970s and 1980s, before Apple became the poster child for Silicon Valley innovation, the center of computer science experimentation was a company that is now best known for its outdated copy machines. Xerox, flooded with money from the success of its pioneering photocopiers in the 1960s, brought together the world’s greatest computer engineers and programmers within the company's R&D arm, Xerox PARC. It was there that many of the first modern computing technologies were developed, such as the graphical user interface and laser printing. As legend has it, a visit to PARC in 1979 gave Steve Jobs the idea for the computer mouse.

Xerox Alto Workstation, the first computer designed to use a graphical user interface. Flickr user Carlo Nardone

Though Xerox would eventually fall behind companies like Apple and IBM in the race to build personal computers, for a little over a decade its research centers were a place of unparalleled collaboration and invention. "We had the equipment and the systems and the computer resources that nobody in the world had," says Maureen Stone, a digital color expert who now works as a head researcher at the data visualization software company Tableau. Stone got a job at PARC right out of school in the early 1980s, working in the color science lab. "We were the only people who were computer science people who had color displays, color printers, color scanners, color measurement equipment—all the pieces that we needed," says Stone. "The graphic arts industry had the scanners and the printers and some of the color science, but they didn’t have the flexibility that we had as computer scientists."

Stone's first project at PARC was building what she calls an "early and much simpler version of Adobe Illustrator"—and indeed, her bosses at PARC, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, did eventually go on to found Adobe. Over the two decades that she worked there, she contributed seminal work to the research of color displays on computers and printers.

When Stone left in the 1990s, Xerox had already started losing money and the research center had become much more like a functional office than the mad scientist lab it once was. But spending your formative professional years at a place like PARC leaves an impact. "It was at PARC that I developed all the expertise one needs to be a research scientist in computing," she says.

Digibarn Computer Museum via Wiki Commons

The PARC PhD

Stone first heard about PARC when early Xerox computer scientists Adele Goldberg and David Liddle spoke at the University of Illinois, where Stone was getting her masters in computer science. After she graduated, she went on to CalTech to pursue her PhD, but decided to drop out after nine months. Since PARC had a partnership with the school, she was able to get a job as a researcher there with just a masters degree.

Stone says she quickly learned that the lab at PARC was also a place to further your education. "Since I didn’t have the PhD I had to do it in-house," she says. "I developed a very hands-on approach to trying things out, building tools that you can actually iterate and explore with. I developed a taste for practical yet scientifically interesting problems." And after working for many years under the best color and computer scientists in the country, she became a well-known member of the community herself.

Inventing Digital Color From The Ground Up

PARC was also where Stone would get her introduction to the field of color science. While building illustration software, Stone worked with Xerox's new color printers, but the computer displays were still black and white. She and her team had to figure out how to name the colors within the software so that it could send the signal to the printer. "We were doing color picking and monitor-to-print very early on," she says. "Nobody else had the technology."

When they eventually got color displays, they found they had another problem. "It would look beautiful on the display, and then you would print it and it looked terrible because we didn’t know how to transform the colors that are specified as RGB to the colors on the printer, which are specified as cyan, magenta, yellow, and black," she says. "That started a line of research because Xerox wanted to sell color printers, and they wanted to sell tools with color displays. We were a document company; we were making digital documents that had color."

Stone reached out to her colleagues in the graphics community at the University of Waterloo—Bill Cowan, now the director of the computer graphics laboratory there, and John Beatty, who retired in 2010. Together, they produced groundbreaking research in digital color mapping that allowed for colors on the screen to be accurately reproduced on paper when printed. Not only did Xerox use it to produce and sell color printers, it also "launched the whole world of color management for when people are creating color on displays," says Stone.

"It Was Very Much A Man's World"

While Stone was not the only woman producing important work at PARC, she was definitely in the minority. In the color science community, there were a few notable women like Bernice Rogowitz, and at PARC Maureen looked up to managers Adele Goldberg and Lynn Conway.

Still, women were enough of an anomaly that colleagues were still mixing her up with another woman in her lab two decades after she started. "I had long blond hair, and there was another woman named Willie-Sue who had long blond hair and was over in the computer science lab," she says. "And even 20 years as I left, somebody was mistaking me for Willie-Sue. So yes, it was definitely a man’s world."

PARC's Legacy

By the time Stone left Xerox PARC in 1998, it was a different place. "After 20 years the place had changed a lot," she says. "We were no longer inventing the future in the same way." When Xerox had a unique patent on xerography, the company had more money than it knew what to do with—which is how they could afford to run cutting-edge research centers. But, "after 20 years or so they started trying to make them really functional because they were losing money and [losing] the printing battles, so the place got not so much fun," says Stone.

Many researchers from PARC left and went on to IBM, Apple, and Adobe, helping to develop the next generation of groundbreaking computing companies. Though those companies eventually eclipsed Xerox in developing new technology, they owe a lot to PARC for paving the way. As for Stone's color display research? "It actually escaped, like so many things, out to Apple," she says.

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