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A letter of recommendation from Danish programming expert Peter Naur helped him win entry to the University of California, Berkeley. He paid the bills with a job at Berkeley’s computer center, where he caught the attention of a faculty member named Butler Lampson. ­Lampson was one of the leaders of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Project Genie–an experiment in time-sharing computer systems, in which multiple users sitting at terminals could share a single computer’s brain time. When the Project Genie creators started a company, called the Berkeley Computer Corporation (BCC), whose purpose was to build a machine that would commercialize their work, Lampson recruited Simonyi.

At BCC, Simonyi would debug the company’s balky prototype through the night, working with system designer Chuck Thacker. One night, Simonyi showed up in a see-through black outfit–“a kind of a hippie thing from one of the shops on Telegraph Avenue,” he says. Today, he can’t remember exactly why–coming from a party, perhaps? The debugging went especially well that night, and the outfit became a good-luck charm–Simonyi’s “debugging suit.”

BCC went belly-up after only a few years, but Lampson, Thacker, and much of the BCC team migrated to Xerox PARC. Simonyi–then just “a random Hungarian undergraduate without a green card,” as he says now–joined them in 1972, laboring at Xerox while simultaneously pursuing his Stanford doctorate. Bob Taylor, who oversaw PARC’s Computer Science Lab during part of that legendary era, says Simonyi’s creativity stood out even in the lab’s famous crowd: “He just could imagine ways of expressing code and ideas that put him off the charts.”

It was a heady time. The team of visionary engineers was creating a series of innovations that would shape the next quarter-century of the PC era: the graphical user interface, networking (Ethernet), the laser printer, object-oriented programming (Smalltalk), portable computing (the Dynabook), and more. These breakthroughs all converged on a prototypical personal computer called the Alto.

The Alto was an amazing invention, but it wasn’t clear what you could do with it until Simonyi and his colleagues created its best-known application: a word processor called Bravo, whose on-screen display of type matched what the system would output to the new laser printer. Existing word processors had elaborate systems of codes for formatting text on the screen (anyone who used WordPerfect on a PC in the 1980s will remember its “embedded codes”); Bravo let you forget about the codes, directly manipulate the design of a document, and immediately witness the changes. A visiting Citibank executive looked at a demo and quoted a signature line of comedian Flip Wilson’s sassy character Geraldine: “What you see is what you get!” The name (reduced to the acronym Wysiwyg and pronounced wizzy­wig ) stuck. Suddenly, Bravo had users: relatives and friends of PARC researchers began asking to use it to print school newsletters and format academic papers. Lampson’s wife printed her thesis using the system, and when it was time for Simonyi to print his, he did the same.

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Credit: Brian Smale

Tagged: Computing

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