Dream Machine: How Alan Kay envisioned the future of modern laptops, tablet computers, and e-books


Alan Kay’s revolutionary vision of the Dynabook inspired the graphic interface, e-books, and the iPad. But he’ll be the first to tell you there’s still work to do.

Illustration: Aleksandra Szpunar
Alan Kay
Alan Kay
Alan Kay

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.

Dream machines. Illustration: Aleksandra Szpunar

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 and his vision of Dynabook

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 programming language

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.

Digital teacher. Illustration: Aleksandra Szpunar

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.”

A machine that teaches “real science”

True to his creative roots, Kay began his exploration of this new idea by drawing a cartoon of two children playing with his imagined device. He built a cardboard prototype to convey what the contraption might actually feel like in the user’s hands. Before long, he had landed a job at a newly formed research lab in Palo Alto, Xerox PARC, which would go on to become a crucial hub of innovation throughout the 70s. Founded in the early 1900s as a photography company, Xerox had become the dominant player in the lucrative photocopying business, so much so that its brand—like Google many years later—became a generic term for making a copy of a document. The corporation had formed XEROX Parc to dabble in the emerging world of computing and quickly hired a team of brilliant mavericks, led by Bob Taylor who had assisted Engelbart with his augmented intellect project and secured funding for the ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet. 

The idea of taking a computer with you to the park seemed like the stuff of distant science fiction. But even more astonishing was the notion that elementary-school-aged children would be programming new physics models into their games for fun.

At Xerox PARC, Kay drafted a 10-page proposal that would go on to become one of the most seminal vision statements in the history of computing. He called it: “A Personal Computer For Children Of All Ages.” The proposal was prefaced, appropriately enough, with a quote from Papert: “Should the computer program the kid, or should the kid program the computer?"

After a quick introduction, Kay launched into an imagined use-case scenario that began with two nine-year-olds—“Jimmy” and “Beth”—lounging on the grass in a park, playing the game SpaceWar on their Dynabooks. Their interstellar battle leads Jimmy to ask a question about how the gameplay would differ if their spaceships were in fact orbiting around a sun, which in turns sparks an idea in Beth’s mind about a potential improvement to the game. “Her fingers started to fly on the Dynabook’s keyboard, altering the program she had written several weeks before,” Kay wrote. Soon after, the children return to their classroom, where they ask a teacher for advice on the game physics. He recommends that Jimmy connect to the school’s digital library for help. “At that, Jimmy connected his Dynabook to his class's LIBLINK and became heir to the thought and knowledge of ages past, all perusable through the screen of his DB. It was like taking an endless voyage through a space that knew no bounds. As always, he had a little trouble remembering what his original purpose was. Each time he came to something interesting, he caused a copy to be sent into his Dynabook, so he could look at it later.”

“Jimmy” and “Beth”. Illustration: Aleksandra Szpunar

It is hard for us today—in a world populated by iPhones and Minecraft and ubiquitous high-speed Internet—to imagine just how radical Kay’s vision of the Dynabook was back in the late 60s and early 70s. Just the idea of taking a computer with you to the park seemed like the stuff of distant science fiction. But even more astonishing was the notion that elementary-school-aged children would be programming new physics models into their games for fun.

“A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’ device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV, will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) of the world to the home,” Kay wrote, prophetically. “One can imagine one of the first programs an owner will write is a filter to eliminate advertising!”

But Kay was not particularly interested in the future commercial uses that the Dynabook might enable—all those stores and virtual billboards and ads that now populate our screens. Inspired by educational innovators like Montessori, Jerome Bruner, and Papert, Kay wanted the Dynabook “to teach ‘real science’ to children… to make dynamic simulations of ideas and things they saw around them.” Looking back many years later, Kay explicitly frames his interest in the problem of educational tools in the societal challenges of period: “The context here was both the general woes of humanity, and also the sickeningly bad dynamics of the 60s, including the enormously daunting problems of race, the Vietnam war, and warnings about the environment.”

Kay’s proposal for the Dynabook was just not storytelling. A significant amount of the document was devoted to the technical specs for his dream machine. “The size should be no larger than a notebook, with weight less than 4 lbs; the visual display should be able to present at least 4000 printing-quality characters with contrast ratios approaching that of a book; dynamic graphics of reasonable quality should be possible; there should be removable local file storage of at least one million characters (about 500 ordinary book pages) traded off against several hours of audio (voice/music) files.” 

The proposal ends with a question: Would it be possible in the near future to construct such a machine so that it could be sold for $500—roughly $4,000 in today’s dollars? At the time, Kay’s and his colleague’s best estimate was that such a device might be feasible at that price point in a decade or so. He correctly predicted that one of the key hurdles would be the screen technology, noting that a “flat panel low power display… does not currently exist but seems possible.” But in the end, it would take almost 30 years for the technology to advance enough to realize the physical design of the Dynabook. Apple released a “portable” Macintosh in 1989 that weighed in at sixteen pounds. (Famously, the space shuttle astronauts used one during a mission, which caused more than a few cynics to note that zero-gravity was the one place you might want to use a 16-pound laptop.) Kay’s imagined 4-pound machine wouldn’t become technologically feasible until the early 21st century. 

Flat panel low power display

Until the very end of the 20th century, almost every color TV screen in existence—including those used as computer monitors—were variations of the cathode ray tube (CRT) design, which was bulky, power-hungry, and entirely inappropriate for a portable device. But Kay was correct that flat panel lower power displays were on the horizon. The key innovation was the use of liquid crystals that re-arranged their shapes when a small amount of electric current was applied to them. Black-and-white LCD screens began to appear on laptops in the late 1980s; Apple's failed Newton device from the mid-90s—the company's first attempt at building a machine vaguely in the Dynabook category—used a small LCD screen. One technology that Kay did not anticipate was the e-ink display, used most famously in Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, which was uniquely suited for book reading applications because the display only used power when turning from one page to another.

Another milestone in the development of personal computers

In 1989, Apple released the Macintosh Portable, which was one of the first truly portable personal computers. While the Macintosh Portable was not a commercial success, it was an important milestone in the development of portable computing devices. Alan Kay, who had been advocating for the development of portable computers since the 1960s, recognized the potential of these devices to transform the way people work and learn. His work on the Dynabook, a conceptual portable computer, helped to inspire the development of devices like the Macintosh Portable and paved the way for the development of modern laptops and tablets.

The proposal. Illustration: Aleksandra Szpunar

Xerox's Alto miss and other innovations ignored

Recognizing the impossibility of building a computer in a book-sized form factor, Kay applied a number of the ideas he had developed for the Dynabook project to another machine in development at Xerox PARC, the Xerox Alto. (Kay insisted on calling it the “interim Dynabook.”) The original Alto had a portrait-oriented screen with a keyboard and mouse set on top of a chassis the size of a mini-fridge. The machine ran software that enabled drawing applications and word processor documents that looked like actual typeset pages; later versions included the “desktop” metaphor that would become ubiquitous in the PC world decades later. You couldn’t take the Alto to the playground with you, as Kay had envisioned for the Dynabook, but it was arguably the first machine that felt suited for creative thinking and not just data entry.

Famously, the executives at Xerox failed to recognize the power and possibility of the new technology being invented at the lab. (Along with the graphic interface, the wizards at Xerox PARC also developed Ethernet, laser printers, and the first object-oriented programming language, Smalltalk—another one of Alan Kay’s brainchildren.) In Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators, he quotes Bob Taylor reminiscing about an internal Xerox conference held in Boca Raton, Florida, where a special room had been set up to showcase the miraculous new computer. But the suits were put off by what seems to us to now to be an inescapable feature: the keyboard.


Smalltalk was an influential early programming language developed by Kay and his frequent collaborator Adele Goldberg at Xerox PARC in the early 70s. Inspired both by Sutherland's design for Sketchpad and a Norwegian programming language called Simula, Smalltalk helped create an entire genre of programming languages known as "object-oriented" languages. In these languages, the program is composed of objects that can contain both data and code. An object might represent something like a saved file, or a cart in a shopping app, or a common function used by the app, like an image filter. Many modern languages, like Ruby, Perl, and Python, rely on the same object-oriented structure that Smalltalk helped pioneer.

“The men thought it was beneath them to know how to type,” Taylor recalled. “It was something secretaries did. So they didn’t take the Alto seriously, thinking that only women would like it. That was my revelation that Xerox would never get the personal computer.”

Three years later, Apple launches the iPad, a machine with almost the exact dimensions of the original Dynabook—though much lighter and vastly more powerful.

The vision that led to the iPhone and iPad

The story of what happened next is one of the most oft-told in the history of computing. In 1979, Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs paid a visit to Xerox PARC and—unlike the Xerox execs at the Boca Raton retreat—was so blown away by the Alto’s graphic interface that he dedicated the next five years of his life to re-creating its look and feel in an Apple product, a quest that ultimately resulted in the Macintosh. When the Mac launched, Kay quipped that it was the first personal computer “good enough to criticize.” But still, the Dynabook vision remained unrealized: no one was lounging in the park exploring an interactive book with the 30-pound Macintosh, as revolutionary as it was. In the meantime, Kay served as an Apple Fellow for many years, and then joined the Imagineering group at Disney, and worked at Hewlett-Packard. Over the years, he was awarded just about every honor a computer scientist can receive: the Turing Award, the Kyoto Prize, and many more.

The team behind Disney’s theme parks

Probably the most creative arm at Disney, commonly referred to as Imagineering, is the research and development unit of The Walt Disney Company. With over 300 patents, Imagineering pioneered technological advances such as the Circle-Vision 360° film technique and the FastPass virtual queuing system. Imagineering is best known for its role in developing Epcot Center, a groundbreaking theme park that combined entertainment and education, and was based on Walt Disney's vision of a "community of the future." Alan Kay joined the group as a Disney Fellow. His work there helped to inspire his ideas about the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and the creation of immersive learning environments.

And then, 20 years after the launch of the Mac, Steve Jobs—exiled and then triumphantly restored as Apple’s leader—invites Alan Kay to the iPhone introduction. After the legendary keynote, Jobs seeks out Kay in the crowd ogling the new product. Remembering Kay’s line from so many years before, Jobs holds up the phone and asks him: “What do you think, Alan, is this good enough to criticize?” Kay frames his hands in the shape of the original Dynabook and says, “Make it this size and you’ll rule the world.” Three years later, Apple launches the iPad, a machine with almost the exact dimensions of the original Dynabook—though much lighter and vastly more powerful. At long last, it would seem, Kay’s prophetic original dream had become reality.

The hook. Illustration: Aleksandra Szpunar

But that’s not exactly how Alan Kay sees it. Tools like the iPad might look like the descendants of that original cardboard prototype he built after his visit with Papert and Solomon at MIT, but looks can be deceiving. “People got hooked on the physical appearance of the Dynabook—and had a very hard time thinking about how it should be used,” Kay says now. “This was quite parallel to Engelbart; they got hooked on the mouse and missed the important ideas. As Doug used to say: ‘the mouse is just a dial on a car radio: we invented a whole car!’”

You can see hints of the original Dynabook vision—the use of simulations to teach scientific ideas, the “kids programming the computer and not the computer programming the kids”—watching today’s children build simulated worlds together in Minecraft or Roblox, or learn to program on their iPads using imaginative tools like Swift Playgrounds. But as Kay points out, these are not the dominant uses of the technology. “The iPad has thousands of times the capacity of what I had in mind,” he observed shortly after its launch, “but its conception is thousands of times more meager.” Kay sees it as primarily a tool for media consumption, and not “an environment to help children learn powerful ideas by making and sharing them.”

“Science gives us the much larger views of our situations that could provide the contexts for much wiser decision making,” he observes now, “and computers are the perfect medium to represent and visualize these new contexts.” Despite his enormous influence over the last 50 years of digital innovation, despite the long list of awards and honors he has received, Kay still feels that we are not using that medium to its full potential: as a tool to help us make much wiser decisions as a species.
But that is the beauty of a dream machine like the Dynabook. You never know when someone might stumble across the original vision—even a half-century after it was originally conceived—and decide the time is finally right to make it reality.

Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of 13 books, including Where Ideas Come From. He’s the host of the PBS/BBC series Extra Life and How We Got to Now. He regularly contributes to The New York Times Magazine and has written for Wired, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. His TED Talks on the history of innovation have been viewed more than ten million times.

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