Mary Rose Cook's notebook

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Dealers of Lightning, a book about Xerox PARC

They called the process of informal collaboration by the name “Tom Sawyering.” Like Tom with his paintbrush and whitewash, someone would set forth his idea or project—whether it was in a formal meeting or a hallway bull session was unimportant—to mobilize a few intrigued colleagues in an attempt to make it happen. If you saw a glimmer of how to implement a new operation in microcode, you would gather a few expert coders in a room and have at the problem until every whiteboard in the place was filled with boxes and arrows and symbols as arcane as Nordic runes. If you had a big project with a lot of soldering to be done, everyone who knew how to wield a soldering gun strapped on his holster.

If an idea worked, the team stuck together for the next three or six months to complete the job; if not, everyone simply dispersed like free electrons in search of a new creative valence. Thacker viewed this system as “a continuous form of peer review. Projects that were exciting and challenging received something much more important than financial and administrative support. They received help and participation… As a result, quality work flourished, less interesting work tended to wither.”

In this spirit Systems Science Lab engineers wrote code for Computer Science Lab hardware, CSL designers helped SSL build prototypes, and the General Science Lab’s physicists chipped in with valuable insights into material properties and electrical behavior (as when Dave Biegelsen told Starkweather how to use sound waves to modulate a light beam and got his offhand suggestion incorporated into the world’s first laser printer).

At one point Tom Sawyering even begot an audacious extracurricular project. This was the so-called “Bose Conspiracy,” which was hatched at a poker game at Rick Jones’s house. Jones, Kay, Thacker, Dick Shoup, Chuck Geschke, and a couple of others had fallen into a discussion of the merits of stereo speakers. Kay was a particular fan of the state-of-the-art Bose 901s, which came with their own electronic equalizer and cost $ 1,100 the set (in the pre-oil shock dollars of the early 1970s). He was also the only one in the group who owned a pair, having acquired them on his PARC budget as part of a real-time music synthesizer his group was developing.

“You know,” someone said as cards riffled in the background, “there’s no reason why we couldn’t make the electronics work just as well. And for a lot less money, too.”

Appropriating a basement room in Building 34, the group took apart Kay’s speakers and painstakingly analyzed the design. They bought cone speakers from the same Kentucky factory that supplied them to Bose, and on a shrieking diamond-toothed radial saw in Jones’s garage they cut and shaped the sound baffles out of high-density particle board. (The marathon session left Kay covered with an inch-thick coating of sawdust and Jones with a lifelong case of tinnitus.) Then they apportioned the assembly tasks—one conspirator handled the soldering, another installed the speaker cones, and so on—the same way they had distributed the tasks on MAXC, which happened to be running contentedly in its own air-conditioned room a few doors away. All told, they manufactured more than forty pairs at $ 125 each. The buyers among their PARC colleagues could customize the units with their choice of grille cloth but were otherwise challenged to tell the knockoffs apart from the real thing. No one could.

“It was so typical of PARC,” Kay recalled. “If you didn’t know how something was done, you just rolled your own.”