Published: March 1, 2014 By

Cartoon of kids using Dynabooks

Kids use Dynabooks in a drawing from Alan Kay’s (Bio, Math’66) 1972 paper “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.” Kay drew the cartoon in 1968.

Who is CU-Boulder’s most influential alum? Unless you follow the computer industry, chances are you’ve never heard of him.

His name is Alan Kay (Bio, Math’66).

Measured against the metrics of how many lives he’s touched and changed (hundreds of millions and counting), Kay is probably CU’s most influential alumnus of all time.

He is one of the giants of personal computing. He almost single-handedly defined the personal computer as we know it.

Do you use an Apple Macintosh or Microsoft Windows personal computer, or any other computer that uses windows, pull-down menus and a mouse to execute point-and-click commands — in other words a computer with a “graphical user interface?”

Kay, along with his colleagues at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), invented the graphical user interface. It first appeared on an experimental computer called the Alto. Steve Jobs based the Macintosh on it. Bill Gates based Microsoft Windows on it. Today it is used on hundreds of millions of computers all over the world. Most people have never encountered a computer without it.

And that’s not half of what Kay has done. He worked on ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet. He wrote some of the first object-oriented computer languages, which revolutionized programming.

And then there’s the Dynabook.

Do you use a laptop or a tablet computer? The Dynabook concept was the daddy of both of them, even though it was never built.

Kay thought it up in the late 1960s and introduced it to the world in 1972, in a stunningly prescient paper titled “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.”

It looked like an iPad-sized version of a Blackberry smartphone. Kay conceived it primarily with children in mind; he believed (and still believes) a children’s computer, if properly designed and used, would revolutionize education.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” Kay says.

Has the iPad and the host of other laptop and tablet computers turned his vision of the Dynabook into reality?

Not even close, he says.

He’s offended that iPads and iPhones don’t allow children to download “Etoys” — software toys made by another child somewhere in the world — because the heart and soul of the Dynabook was to allow children to educate themselves by using their computers to discover, create and share.

In 2001 Kay started his own research institute, the Viewpoints Research Institute, where he’s pursuing his most revolutionary unrealized ideas, including creating Dynabook-like $100 tablets and putting them in the hands of every child in the world, especially the developing world.

One of Kay’s more memorable quotes — and my favorite — is:

“If you don’t fail at least 90 percent of the time, you’re not aiming high enough.

Paul Danish (Hist'65) never has completely grown up. Unsurprisingly, he has a Dynabook at the top of his bucket list.

Illustration by Alan Kay