Alan Kay

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.

Alan Kay
Kay at the 2008 40th anniversary of The Mother of All Demos
Alan Curtis Kay

(1940-05-17) May 17, 1940
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materUniversity of Colorado at Boulder
University of Utah
Known forDynabook
object-oriented programming
graphical user interface windows
Spouse(s)Bonnie MacBird
AwardsACM Turing Award (2003)
Kyoto Prize
Charles Stark Draper Prize
Scientific career
FieldsComputer science
InstitutionsXerox PARC
Stanford University
Atari Inc.
Apple Inc. ATG
Walt Disney Imagineering
Kyoto University
Viewpoints Research Institute
Hewlett-Packard Labs
Doctoral advisor

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]

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., Kay said:

I had the misfortune or the fortune to learn how to read fluently starting about the age of three, so I had read maybe 150 books by the time I hit first grade, and I already knew the teachers were lying to me.[4]

Originally from Springfield, Massachusetts, Kay's family relocated several times due to his father's career in physiology before ultimately settling in the New York metropolitan area when he was nine.

He attended the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School, where he was suspended due to insubordination in his senior year. Having already accumulated enough credits to graduate, Kay then attended Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. He majored in biology and minored in mathematics before he was asked to leave by the administration for protesting the institution's Jewish quota.

Thereafter, Kay taught guitar in Denver, Colorado for a year and hastily enlisted in the United States Air Force when the local draft board inquired about his nonstudent status. Assigned as a computer programmer (a rare billet dominated by women due to the secretarial connotations of the field in the era) after passing an aptitude test, he devised an early cross-platform file transfer system.

Following his discharge, Kay enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder, earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics and molecular biology in 1966. Before and during this time, he worked as a professional jazz guitarist. During his studies at CU, he wrote the music for an adaptation of The Hobbit and other campus theatricals.

In the autumn of 1966, he began graduate school at the University of Utah College of Engineering. He earned an M.S. in electrical engineering in 1968 before taking his Ph.D. in computer science in 1969. His doctoral dissertation, FLEX: A Flexible Extendable Language, described the invention of a computer language known as FLEX.[5][6][7] While there, he worked with "fathers of computer graphics" David C. Evans (who had been recently recruited from the University of California, Berkeley to start Utah's computer science department) and Ivan Sutherland (best known for writing such pioneering programs as Sketchpad). Their mentorship greatly inspired Kay's evolving views on objects and programming. As he grew busier with DARPA research, he ended his musical career.

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, further influencing his professional orientation.

Leaving Utah as an associate professor of computer science in 1969, Kay became a visiting researcher at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in anticipation of accepting a professorship at Carnegie Mellon University. Instead, in 1970, he joined the Xerox PARC research staff in Palo Alto, California. Throughout the decade, he developed prototypes of networked workstations using the programming language Smalltalk. These inventions were later commercialized by Apple 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. Some of the original object-oriented concepts, including the use of the words 'object' and 'class', had been developed for Simula 67 at the Norwegian Computing Center. Later he said:

I'm sorry that I long ago coined the term "objects" for this topic because it gets many people to focus on the lesser idea. The big idea is "messaging"[8]

While at PARC, Kay conceived the Dynabook concept, a key progenitor of laptop and tablet computers and the e-book. He is also the architect of the modern overlapping windowing graphical user interface (GUI).[9] Because the Dynabook was conceived as an educational platform, Kay is considered to be one of the first researchers into mobile learning; 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:

As with Simulas leading to OOP, this encounter finally hit me with what the destiny of personal computing really was going to be. Not a personal dynamic vehicle, as in Engelbart's metaphor opposed to the IBM "railroads", but something much more profound: a personal dynamic 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.[10]

Recent work and recognition

From 1981 to 1984, Kay was Atari's Chief Scientist. He became an Apple Fellow in 1984. Following the closure of the company's Advanced Technology Group in 1997,[11] he was recruited by his friend Bran Ferren, head of research and development at Disney, to join Walt Disney Imagineering as a Disney Fellow. He remained there until Ferren left to start Applied Minds Inc with Imagineer Danny Hillis, leading to the cessation of the Fellows program. In 2001, he founded Viewpoints Research Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to children, learning, and advanced software development. For its first ten years, Kay and his Viewpoints group were based at Applied Minds in Glendale, California, where he and Ferren continued to work together on various projects. Kay was also a Senior Fellow at Hewlett-Packard until HP disbanded the Advanced Software Research Team on July 20, 2005.

Kay taught a Fall 2011 class, "Powerful Ideas: Useful Tools to Understand the World", at New York University'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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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?"[16]

Awards and honors

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

His other honors include the J-D Warnier Prix d'Informatique, the ACM Systems Software Award, the NEC Computers & Communication Foundation Prize, the Funai Foundation Prize, the Lewis Branscomb Technology Award, and the ACM SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education.

See also


  1. "ACM Turing Award". 2003. published by the Association for Computing Machinery 2012
  2. Alan Kay (1997). The Computer Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet (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 C. Kay (1968). "FLEX: A Flexible Extendable Language" (PDF). University of Utah.
  6. H. Peter Alesso; C.F. Smith (2008). Connections: Patterns of Discovery. Wiley Series on Systems Engineering and Analysis, 29. John Wiley & Sons. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-470-11881-8. Retrieved 2015-08-15.
  7. S.B. Barnes. "Alan Kay: Transforming the Computer Into a Communication Medium" (PDF). Engineering & Technology History Wiki. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 July 2016.
  8. "AlanKayOnMessaging".
  9. Bergin, Jr., Thomas J.; Gibson, Jr., Richard G. (1996). History of Programming Languages II. New York, NY: ACM Press, Addison-Wesley.
  10. "The Early History of Smalltalk". Archived from the original on 2008-07-10. Retrieved 2016-12-16.
  11. "Alan Kay". I Programmer. 13 November 2009.
  12. Kay, Alan (2011-09-15). "Powerful Ideas: Useful Tools to Understand the World". Retrieved 2011-09-15.
  13. Andreas Raab (6 July 2001). "Events, Scripts & Multiple Processes". Archived from the original on 2 October 2011. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
  14. "Tweak: Whitepapers". Archived from the original on 2 October 2011.
  15. Alan Kay; Dan Ingalls; Yoshiki Ohshima; Ian Piumarta; Andreas Raab. "Steps Toward The Reinvention of Programming – A Compact And Practical Model of Personal Computing As A Self-Exploratorium" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-05-08. Retrieved 2013-03-23. Proposal to NSF – Granted on August 31st 2006
  16. Kay, Alan (2006-11-27). "How Simply and Understandably Could The "Personal Computing Experience" Be Programmed?". Archived from the original on 2007-06-25.
  17. "UdK 01-Award". Archived from the original on 2005-05-28.
  18. "2004 Recipients of the Charles Stark Draper Prize". National Academy of Engineering. National Academy of Sciences.
  19. "Hedersdoktorer 2008-1995, inklusive ämnesområden" (in Swedish). KTH. Archived from the original on 2009-01-09. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
  20. "Tech forms dual-degree program with Chinese university" (PDF). The Whistle. Georgia Institute of Technology. 19 December 2005. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 July 2016.
  21. "Columbia College Chicago Announces 2005 Commencement Ceremonies". Columbia College Chicago. 10 May 2005. Archived from the original on 2012-03-20.
  22. "UW's convocation graduates 4,378 students, awards 10 honorary degrees". University of Waterloo. 2008-06-10. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
  23. "Alan Curtis Kay: Doctor Honoris Causa". Facultad de Informática, Universidad de Murcia. 2010.
  24. "Alan Kay receives an honorary degree from the School of Informatics". School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh. 2017.
  25. "Alan Kay: 1999 Fellow Awards Recipient". Computer History Museum. Archived from the original on 2012-10-03.
  26. "ACM Fellows". Association of Computing Machinery. 2008.
  27. "Alan Kay as HPI fellow appreciated" (in German). 21 July 2011. Archived from the original on 24 July 2011.
  28. Kay, Alan (21 July 2011). "Programming and Scaling". Germany, Potsdam, Hasso-Plattner Institute: HPI Potsdam.
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