Alan Kay

For other people named Alan Kay, see Alan Kay (disambiguation).
Alan Kay

Kay at the 2008 40th anniversary of The Mother of All Demos
Born Alan Curtis Kay
(1940-05-17) May 17, 1940
Springfield, Massachusetts
Citizenship United States
Fields Computer science
Institutions Xerox PARC
Stanford University
Apple Inc. ATG
Walt Disney Imagineering
Kyoto University
Viewpoints Research Institute
Hewlett-Packard Labs
Alma mater University of Colorado at Boulder,
University of Utah
Doctoral advisor
Known for Dynabook
object-oriented programming
graphical user interface windows
Notable awards ACM Turing Award (2003)
Kyoto Prize
Charles Stark Draper Prize
Spouse Bonnie MacBird

Alan Curtis Kay (born May 17, 1940[1]) is an American computer scientist. He has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society of Arts.[2] He is best known for his pioneering work on object-oriented programming and windowing graphical user interface design.

He is the president of the Viewpoints Research Institute, and an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also on the advisory board of TTI/Vanguard. Until mid-2005, he was a Senior Fellow at HP Labs, a Visiting Professor at Kyoto University, and an Adjunct Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).[3] After 10 years at Xerox PARC, Kay became Atari's chief scientist for three years.

Kay is also a former professional jazz guitarist, composer, and theatrical designer, and an amateur classical pipe organist.

Early life and work

In an interview on education in America with the Davis Group Ltd. Alan Kay said, "I had the fortune or misfortune to learn how to read fluently starting at the age of three. So I had read maybe 150 books by the time I hit 1st grade. And I already knew that the teachers were lying to me."[4]

Originally from Springfield, Massachusetts, Kay attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, earning a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics and Molecular Biology. Before and during this time, he worked as a professional jazz guitarist.

In 1966, he began graduate school at the University of Utah College of Engineering, earning a master's degree and a Ph.D. degree.

His doctoral thesis was entitled FLEX: A Flexible Extendable Language, describing an invention of computer language known as FLEX.[5][6][7]

While at the University of Utah, he worked with Ivan Sutherland, who had done pioneering graphics programs including Sketchpad. This greatly inspired Kay's evolving views on objects and programming. As he grew busier with ARPA research, he quit his career as a professional musician.

In 1968, he met Seymour Papert and learned of the Logo programming language, a dialect of Lisp optimized for educational purposes. This led him to learn of the work of Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky, and of constructionist learning. These further influenced his views.

In 1970, Kay joined Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center, PARC. In the 1970s he was one of the key members there to develop prototypes of networked workstations using the programming language Smalltalk. These inventions were later commercialized by Apple Computer in their Lisa and Macintosh computers.

Kay is one of the fathers of the idea of object-oriented programming, which he named, along with some colleagues at PARC and predecessors at the Norwegian Computing Center. He conceived the Dynabook concept which defined the conceptual basics for laptop and tablet computers and E-books, and is the architect of the modern overlapping windowing graphical user interface (GUI).[8] Because the Dynabook was conceived as an educational platform, Kay is considered to be one of the first researchers into mobile learning, and indeed, many features of the Dynabook concept have been adopted in the design of the One Laptop Per Child educational platform, with which Kay is actively involved.

The field of computing is awaiting new revolution to happen, according to Kay, in which educational communities, parents, and children will not see in it a set of tools invented by Douglas Engelbart, but a medium in the Marshall McLuhan sense. He wrote that the destiny of personal computing is not going to be:

(…) a 'vehicle', as in Engelbart's metaphor opposed to the IBM 'railroads', but something much more profound: a (…) medium. With a 'vehicle' one could wait until high school and give 'drivers ed', but if it was a medium, it had to extend into the world of childhood.[9]

Recent work and recognition

Starting in 1984, Kay was an Apple Fellow at Apple Computer until the closing of the ATG (Advanced Technology Group), one of the company's R&D divisions.[10] He then joined Walt Disney Imagineering as a Disney Fellow and remained there until Disney ended its Disney Fellow program. After Disney, in 2001 he founded Viewpoints Research Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to children, learning, and advanced software development.

Later, Kay worked with a team at Applied Minds, then became a Senior Fellow at Hewlett-Packard until HP disbanded the Advanced Software Research Team on July 20, 2005. He is currently head of Viewpoints Research Institute.

Kay taught a Fall 2011 class, "Powerful Ideas: Useful Tools to Understand the World", at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) along with full-time ITP faculty member Nancy Hechinger. The goal of the class was to devise new forms of teaching/learning based on fundamental, powerful concepts rather than traditional rote learning.[11]

Squeak, Etoys, and Croquet

In December 1995, while still at Apple, Kay collaborated with many others to start the open source Squeak version of Smalltalk, and he continues to work on it. As part of this effort, in November 1996, his team began research on what became the Etoys system. More recently he started, along with David A. Smith, David P. Reed, Andreas Raab, Rick McGeer, Julian Lombardi and Mark McCahill, the Croquet Project, an open source networked 2D and 3D environment for collaborative work.


In 2001, it became clear that the Etoy architecture in Squeak had reached its limits in what the Morphic interface infrastructure could do. Andreas Raab was a researcher working in Kay's group, then at Hewlett-Packard. He proposed defining a "script process" and providing a default scheduling mechanism that avoids several more general problems.[12] The result was a new user interface, proposed to replace the Squeak Morphic user interface in the future. Tweak added mechanisms of islands, asynchronous messaging, players and costumes, language extensions, projects, and tile scripting.[13] Its underlying object system is class-based, but to users (during programming) it acts like it is prototype-based. Tweak objects are created and run in Tweak project windows.

Children's Machine

In November 2005, at the World Summit on the Information Society, the MIT research laboratories unveiled a new laptop computer, for educational use around the world. It has many names: the $100 Laptop, the One Laptop per Child program, the Children's Machine, and the XO-1. The program was begun and is sustained by Kay's friend, Nicholas Negroponte, and is based on Kay's Dynabook ideal. Kay is a prominent co-developer of the computer, focusing on its educational software using Squeak and Etoys.

Reinventing programming

Kay has lectured extensively on the idea that the computer revolution is very new, and all of the good ideas have not been universally implemented. Lectures at OOPSLA 1997 conference and his ACM Turing award talk, entitled "The Computer Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet" were informed by his experiences with Sketchpad, Simula, Smalltalk, and the bloated code of commercial software.

On August 31, 2006, Kay's proposal to the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) was granted, thus funding Viewpoints Research Institute for several years. The proposal title was: STEPS Toward the Reinvention of Programming: A compact and Practical Model of Personal Computing as a Self-exploratorium.[14] A sense of what Kay is trying to do comes from this quote, from the abstract of a seminar on this given at Intel Research Labs, Berkeley: "The conglomeration of commercial and most open source software consumes in the neighborhood of several hundreds of millions of lines of code these days. We wonder: how small could be an understandable practical "Model T" design that covers this functionality? 1M lines of code? 200K LOC? 100K LOC? 20K LOC?"[15]

Awards and honors

Alan Kay has received many awards and honors. Among them:

Other honors: J-D Warnier Prix d’Informatique, ACM Systems Software Award, NEC Computers & Communication Foundation Prize, Funai Foundation Prize, Lewis Branscomb Technology Award, ACM SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education.


  1. A.M. TURING AWARD published by the Association for Computing Machinery 2012
  2. Alan Kay (1997):The Computer Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet, Walt Disney Imagineering, transcript of a speech.
  3. Paczkowski, John (21 July 2005). "HP converting storied garage into recycling center". Good Morning Silicon Valley. Media News Group. Archived from the original on 2007-06-26.
  4. "Interview with Alan Kay on education". The Generational Divide. The Davis Group. Retrieved 5 March 2011.
  5. Alan Curtis Kay - FLEX: A Flexible Extendable Language Computer Science, Information Processing Systems, University of Utah, 1968, 104 pages, Technical report (University of Utah. Information Processing Systems) [Retrieved 2015-08-15]
  6. H. Peter Alesso, C.F. Smith. Connections: Patterns of Discovery (p.61). John Wiley & Sons 18 Jan 2008, 200 pages, ISBN 047019152X, Wiley Series on Systems Engineering and Analysis, 29. Retrieved 2015-08-15.
  7. S.B. Barnes - Alan Kay: Transforming the Computer Into a Communication Medium published by ETHW & Fordham University [Retrieved 2015-08-15]
  8. Bergin, Jr., Thomas J.; Gibson, Jr., Richard G. (1996). History of Programming Languages II. New York, NY: ACM Press, Addison-Wesley.
  9. The Early History of Smalltalk
  10. "Alan Kay". I Programmer. 13 November 2009.
  11. Kay, Alan (2011-09-15). "Powerful Ideas:Useful Tools to Understand the World". Retrieved 2011-09-15.
  12. Andreas Raab (6 July 2001). "Events, Scripts & Multiple Processes". Retrieved 2009-06-07.
  13. Tweak: Whitepapers
  14. Proposal to NSF – Granted on August 31st 2006 – Steps Toward The Reinvention of Programming – A Compact And Practical Model of Personal Computing As A Self-Exploratorium – Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, Yoshiki Ohshima, Ian Piumarta, Andreas Raab
  15. Kay, Alan (2006-11-27). "How Simply and Understandably Could The "Personal Computing Experience" Be Programmed?". Archived from the original on 2007-06-25. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
  16. "UdK 01-Award". Archived from the original on 2005-05-28.
  17. "2004 Recipients of the Charles Stark Draper Prize". National Academy of Engineering. National Academy of Sciences.
  18. "Hedersdoktorer 2008-1995, inklusive ämnesområden" (in Swedish). KTH. Archived from the original on 2009-01-09. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
  19. "Tech forms dual-degree program with Chinese university" (PDF). The Whistle. Georgia Institute of Technology. 19 December 2005.
  20. Hunter, Priscilla (10 May 2005). "2005 Commencement Ceremonies: Columbia College Chicago Announces 2005 Commencement Ceremonies". Columbia College Chicago. Archived from the original on 2011-09-30.
  21. "UW's convocation graduates 4,378 students, awards 10 honorary degrees". University of Waterloo. 2008-06-10. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
  22. "Universidad de Murcia".
  23. "Alan Kay: 1999 Fellow Awards Recipient". Computer History Museum.
  24. "ACM Fellows". Archived from the original on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
  25. "Alan Kay as HPI fellow appreciated". 21 July 2011.
  26. Kay, Alan (21 July 2011). "Programming and Scaling". Germany, Potsdam, Hasso-Plattner Institute: HPI Potsdam.

External links

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