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LampsonFest: Celebrating a Computing Legend

February 13, 2014 | By Microsoft blog editor

Posted by Rob Knies

Butler Lampson

It’s a mouthful. The citation for the A.M. Turing Award presented to Butler Lampson 22 years ago reads as follows:

For contributions to the development of distributed, personal computing environments and the technology for their implementation: workstations, networks, operating systems, programming systems, displays, security, and document publishing.

As amazing as it might seem, Lampson, indeed, has made seminal contributions to all of these foundational computing advances. His career is as accomplished as imaginable. Oh, the stories that could be told …

On Feb. 13, they will be. From 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Cambridge, Mass., in the Horace Mann Conference Room at Microsoft Research New England, Lampson’s colleagues from his storied computer-science career will gather to pay tribute to a man whom his boss, Jennifer Chayes, a Microsoft distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research New England, refers to as “one of the all-time greats of computer science.”

LampsonFest, they’re calling it, and advance indications are that it will be as illuminating and compelling as the man it celebrates.

The day will include a series of talks revisiting the history of computer systems—and issues of current concern. Those discussions will be presented in the context of Lampson’s brilliant, transformative career, one that took him from studying physics at Harvard to gaining a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley to the innovation greenhouse that was Xerox PARC back in the ’70s, then on to the Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) and, eventually, Microsoft Research.

“Butler Lampson has had a major impact on Microsoft,” says Peter Lee, Microsoft corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Research. “His technical expertise and contributions spanning computer security, distributed systems, operating systems, networking, software engineering, and algorithms have contributed in incalculable ways to Microsoft’s success.”

Those contributions simply constitute the latest in a sustained and successful research career. Forty years or so ago, Lampson and his colleagues in the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, several of whom will be present for LampsonFest, were charged with developing the office of the future. They delivered—in spades:

  • The Alto, the first practical personal computer.
  • An Ethernet local area network.
  • Internet protocols.
  • A laser printer.
  • Bravo, the first WYSIWYG text-processing program.
  • The first bitmap painting programs and the first scalable drawing programs.
  • Spline fonts for scalable printed text.

Rest assured that such accomplishments will provide the fodder for many fond remembrances on Feb. 13, less than two months after Lampson’s 70th birthday.

“Whenever you have an outstanding researcher in your midst and they reach a personal landmark, their colleagues want to celebrate the person’s career and reminisce by getting together,” says Madhu Sudan, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a member of the event’s organizing committee, along with Christian Borgs, Chayes, and Lampson’s fellow Turing recipients Barbara Liskov and Chuck Thacker. “But as the plans unfolded, I started realizing that this is really an event more for the audience to learn about the extremely exciting history of the beginnings of the field of computing.”

The scope of the day’s activities—and the star power involved—can be gleaned just by a casual look at the agenda. The names of the presenters and their talks would excite even the most hard-boiled of computing enthusiasts:

It comes as little surprise then, Chayes says, that interest in LampsonFest caught fire. Because of overwhelming interest, the event quickly reached capacity, and registration was closed.

“Madhu, Barbara, and Chuck said they have never seen people answer an invitation so quickly,” Chayes reports.

As the excitement built, the stories began to pour forth. That process promises to become a deluge on Feb. 13, but a taste of what is to come was shared by Thacker, like Lampson a Microsoft technical fellow.

“I met Butler in 1967,” Thacker recalls, “when I joined the Genie project at UC Berkeley. The project had finished its time-sharing machine, the SDS 940, and we were planning a larger successor system. Since it would have been difficult to do a project of this scope in the university, several of the project members started the Berkeley Computer Corporation. Although the BCC-500 computer was completed, the company went the way of many startups and closed in 1970.

“Fortunately for us, Bob Taylor had been recruited to lead the Computer Science Lab at the new Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Butler and I, as well as a number of others from BCC, formed the initial staff of the lab. Although CSL was very successful in its research, Xerox was not a computer company and failed to make a commercial success of the work. In 1983, led by Taylor, many of the CSL group left Xerox to found the DEC Systems Research Center. By this time, Butler had relocated to Philadelphia and was an early telecommuter. Butler left DEC for Microsoft in 1995; I followed two years later.”

In 2004, Lampson, Thacker, Taylor, and Kay received the Charles Stark Draper Prize, widely known as the Nobel Prize for engineering, “for the vision, conception, and development of the first practical networked personal computers.” A decade later, in the days leading to LampsonFest, Thacker shared an email he had received from Taylor.

“I had joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in late 1970 to build a new laboratory,” Taylor wrote. “By this time, I had accumulated five years of experience getting to know the brightest young computerists in the country, so I knew who I wanted to hire, and a half-dozen of them were just up the road, including Chuck Thacker, Peter Deutsch, Jim Mitchell, Dick Shoup, Ed Fiala, and Butler.”

Apparently, the latter made an early yet enduring impression on Taylor.

“Somewhere between 1962 and 1965, Butler graduated from Harvard and entered graduate school at UC Berkeley,” Taylor wrote to Thacker, “and at some point, he decided to switch interest from physics to computing.

“I’ve never asked him when or how that transition occurred, but I have asked him why. He told me, ‘Physics was too hard,’ and I’ve heard him tell others the same. Well, I’ll tell you, I have known many physicists over the years, and I have never met one as smart as Butler, so I don’t buy his answer. I figure this was an opportunity for him to show some modesty—an opportunity that does not come to him very often.”

Not all of Lampson’s contributions came at Xerox PARC or DEC. He has played a key role since joining Microsoft, too.

“What Butler has meant to Microsoft goes well beyond his technical contributions,” Lee says. “He has, throughout his career, understood, perhaps better than just about anyone else on the planet, the true promise of basic research in industry. He understands what it takes to bring a bunch of great people together with the right culture, the right management philosophy, and the right expectations to create a great industrial research organization.”

Chayes, with whose New England lab Lampson is affiliated, understands that well.

“Our lab very much reflects Butler’s input,” she says, “in particular, his stories of ‘what Bob Taylor would have done.’

“It’s funny: When we first moved out here to start a lab in Cambridge, I heard so many stories of Butler being uncompromising. Of course, for those who know me, I find ‘uncompromising’ to be a feature, not a bug. Butler has brought his uncompromising standards and style, together with phenomenal graciousness and generosity that are now embedded in this lab. We are incredibly lucky to have Butler in our lives.”

Thacker, too, while acknowledging the professional accomplishments achieved by Lampson, feels most fortunate simply to have made his acquaintance.

“Butler has worked in a number of areas in computing, including system architecture, operating systems, networking, programming-language design, and computer security,” Thacker says. “He has received numerous awards that testify to his enormous competence and impact on the field.

“All of the colleagues who have worked with him have benefited enormously from the collaboration, and I’m personally grateful for the things we accomplished together. I’m sure my life would be quite different and much less rewarding had we not met.”

These days, Lampson’s research is focused on exploring feasible ways to regulate personal data on the web and determining how technology can contribute to various regulatory regimes.

He also continues to follow computing at a high level, tracking the next great wave of innovation: engagement with the physical world. With the explosion of robotics and systems that collect physical information, such as traffic patterns and data derived from sensory devices, Lampson thinks the major challenge is learning how to write programs that cope with uncertainty, with machine-learning technologies leading the way.

With attendees looking back at the career of a computing pioneer still looking toward the future, attendees of LampsonFest are in for quite an event. The guest of honor commands respect both for his contributions and for his bearing.

“When Butler speaks,” Lee concludes, “people listen. I listen. When I am thinking about how best to make Microsoft Research the best place it can possibly be, I always consult with Butler Lampson. He is an integral part of the heart and soul of Microsoft Research.”