Douglas Fairbairn

Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.
Steve Jobs

Douglas Fairbairn and Xerox Alto
Douglas Fairbairn (the Notetaker’s chief hardware designer) and Xerox Alto

In early 1978 some of the greatest technology minds of Xerox Corporation PARC in Palo Alto, California—Adele Goldberg (b. 1945) (the initial idea was her), Douglas Fairbairn (b. 1948) (he became a chief hardware designer), and Lawrence “Larry” Tesler (1945-2020), who used to work on the famous Xerox Alto project (which pioneered the graphical user interface), started their work on the Xerox NoteTaker, an early portable computer, which strongly influenced the design of some later computers like Osborne 1 and Compaq Portable.

The Xerox NoteTaker relied heavily on the earlier Dynabook project of Alan Kay (developed in 1972), and just like it, it did not enter production, and only around ten prototypes were built. However, in contrast with the Dynabook, which was a concept for a transportable computer that was impossible to implement with available technology, the NoteTaker was intended to show what could be done.

The Xerox NoteTaker of 1978
The Xerox NoteTaker of 1978

The NoteTaker computer (see NoteTaker System Manual) weighed some 22 kg (dimensions: 2 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 7 1/2 in) and was built using what was then highly advanced technology, including a built-in touch-sensitive monochrome display monitor, a 340K bytes floppy disk drive, and a mouse. It fitted into a case similar in form to that of a portable sewing machine; the keyboard folded out from the bottom to reveal the monitor and the floppy drive. NoteTaker used a version of the Smalltalk-78 operating system that was written for the Xerox Alto computer.

NoteTaker featured some very advanced hardware: It was battery-powered; had a central CPU with 5 MHz Intel 8086 processor and 4K 16-bit words local memory; a minimum of 128 kB of 16-bit RAM; 7″ diagonal CRT displaying 640 dots horizontally and 480 dots in the vertical direction; a 300 bps modem; a 2″ speaker for audio output; a transparent overlay tablet for pointing on the screen; an analog-to-digital converter with an 8 input multiplexer on the input, and a two-channel digital-to-analog converter; interfaces—Ethernet, EiA, and IEEE bus interface.

The architecture of NoteTaker is such that a small number of processors can be operated in parallel, thus the system offered a useful platform for experimenting with multiprocessor architectures.

The NoteTaker had never been produced commercially, but including so much advanced technologies, it would likely have cost in excess of USD 50,000.