There’s a long and ignoble tradition among technology companies of announcing dazzling new products long before they are actually ready to ship in order to intimidate the competition or influence the public markets. Even at the outset of the PC revolution, the practice was so common that these imaginary products—many of which never actually hit the shelves—were given a name that persists to this day: vaporware. The term is inevitably used in a disapproving way; if you’re marketing vaporware, you’re doing something shady by definition. But there is another class of imaginary products in tech history that have had a much more positive impact on the world: prototypes or demos or even just written descriptions of new tools that never became actual consumer products, but that captured the imagination of a generation of technologists and inspired a host of imitations. Call them: dream machines.
Doug Engelbart’s NLS system, previewed in the legendary “mother of all demos,” was a dream machine; Ted Nelson’s eclectic hypertext platform Xanadu was another. But you can make the case that the most influential dream machine of all was conceived in the late 1960s by the American computer scientist Alan Kay. Now one of the most widely lauded of the early digital pioneers, Kay had a hand in a number of revolutionary ideas, from object-oriented programming to the graphical interface. But his most visionary idea was a portable computer he called the Dynabook.
Most technology historians consider the Dynabook to be the direct predecessor of modern laptops, tablet computers, and e-books—which suggests there are literally billions of devices out there that were inspired by the Dynabook concept. But if you ask Alan Kay about that history, he will tell you that more than half a century after he first dreamed up the machine, no one has actually built a proper Dynabook yet.
The first glimpses of a digital book
“I spent the afternoon in a bookstore,” the Polish science-fiction author Stanislaw Lem wrote in his 1961 novel, Return From the Stars. “There were no books in it. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves… The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded content. They can be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it.”
Stanislaw Lem was a Polish science fiction writer whose novels accurately predicted what the future would look like half a century later. He’s best known for his novel Solaris, which follows a crew of scientists on a research station as they attempt to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence. Lem also wrote a series of essays on the future of computing, exploring many of the same visions that Alan Kay developed concurrently. The closest to Kay’s vision was "opton," a hypothetical computing technology that used light rather than electricity to transmit data. Alan Kay has cited Lem's work as an important influence on his own thinking about the future of computing and the role of technology in society.
Lem’s “opton” device is one of the first fictional glimpses of a hand-held computing device modeled after the print book. For most of the 20th century, “thinking machines” had been imagined as bulky, sometimes room-sized objects, for understandable reasons. When Lem published Return From the Stars, the state-of-the-art “microcomputer”—the PDP-1—was the size of a bookshelf and weighed more than a thousand pounds. Just the video screen alone was almost too heavy to lift, much less bring with you to the beach.
But by the time Alan Kay began his graduate work in computer science at the University of Utah in the late 60s, a series of technological breakthroughs had made it possible to imagine computers that could be miniaturized into much smaller form factors. Gordon Moore had already observed in 1965 that the number of transistors that could fit on a microchip was doubling every year—a trend that would famously become known as “Moore’s Law.” Right around the same time, the first liquid crystal displays were being developed, suggesting the possibility that future computer displays might not have to depend on cumbersome, power-intensive cathode-ray tubes.
A graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and Bethany College, Kay had been a jazz musician and a guitar instructor before enrolling in graduate school, a background that would shape many of his contributions to the tech world, almost all of which emphasized the creative and pedagogical capabilities of these new machines. During his tenure in Utah, he had worked under the legendary inventor Ivan Sutherland, whose “Sketchpad” device was the first to allow users to draw directly on a screen using a stylus. He had also been impressed by the work of Doug Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute and his vision of using computers to “augment human intellect.” Kay was in the audience for Engelbart’s legendary 1968 demo, where he debuted a mouse-driven graphic interface to an enchanted audience of computer engineers.
One of the most influential hybrids of hardware and software design in computer history, Sketchpad was initially conceived as Sutherland's PhD thesis at MIT in the early 1960s. The system relied on a novel input mechanism—a "light pen"—that enabled the user to draw directly onto the screen, in the way modern styluses can be used to write on tablet displays. The drawings could then be manipulated by pushing an array of hard-wired buttons with functions like "move" and "erase." The visual nature of the interaction was key to the system. As Sutherland noted, prophetically, in his dissertation: "The Sketchpad system, by eliminating typed statements (except for legends) in favor of line drawings, opens up a new area of man-machine communication."
The idea for the Dynabook, however, would not crystallize in Kay’s mind until after a visit to MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, where he saw an early version of the Logo programming language designed explicitly for children, created by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon. Logo famously employed a virtual “turtle” that children could use to generate graphics on the screen. Watching the delight with which kids interacted with previously intimidating digital machines opened up a new door of possibility in Kay’s mind. “The ‘augmentation’ of Sketchpad and Engelbart's system could be adapted to children,” he recalls now, “especially to help them learn how to think much better than most adults do today."
Logo was a programming language explicitly designed for educational use, created in the late 1960s by Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, and Wally Feurzeig. Programmed on the same PDP-1 machine that had been used to develop the game SpaceWar, Logo borrowed a metaphor from an older tradition that had first taken root in robotics: the idea of a “turtle” that could be used to draw shapes based on programmed commands. Another Hidden Hero, Radia Perlman, later developed a version of Logo aimed at very young children called TORTIS, short for “Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System.” As of March 2020, more than 300 different flavors of the Logo language have been developed.
On the flight back to Salt Lake City, Kay’s mind was whirring. “It was now an imperative for me that the children should have a machine that they could learn with,” Kay says. “The big change here was from the previous metaphors. Engelbart liked ‘vehicles’ for traveling ‘information space.’ But my realization [was] that it should be something that would be more like the ‘next concept of a book’—interactive, knowledge as not just simulations, but simulations that could also be made by the children.”