PARC: What’s w/the Shagadelic Carpet & Beanbag Chairs?

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When PARC was built in 1970, the walls were painted “California Poppy” and the carpet was bright orange. When the building was remodeled more than a decade later, the chosen tones were much more conservative. However, the decision was made to preserve some of the carpet.

Below is the closet-size IC vault, which contains the only remaining original patch of orange carpet.

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Another design relic of 1970s PARC…

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No, not the whiteboard. The beanbag.

In Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, Michael A. Hiltzik refers to the weekly “Dealer”* meeting usually held on Tuesdays, in which the entire Computing Science Laboratory would congregate in one room decked out in beanbag chairs covered in a “ghastly mustard-yellow fabric.” The bags were purchased in Berkeley &mdash where else? &mdash by Peter Deutsch and his wife.

The idea behind the beanbags, explains Linda Jacobson, PARC’s head of communications, was to try and keep the already-heated conversations from getting too out of control &mdash i.e. researchers were lounging on the ground in seating they couldn’t quickly spring up from, so there might be less face-to-face shouting matches.

Nevertheless, Hiltzik writes:

“The criticisms could be particularly ruthless when Dealer turned to the qualifications of a job candidate. Scientific prodigies who had spent half their lives defending abstruse research before hostile faculty committees were easily unnerved by this small group slouched in their beanbags, rudely firing off comments of annihilating incisiveness. Newcomers almost always came away from Dealer profoundly unsettled…

The pitiless judgments dispensed at Dealer derived from the ethos of the engineer, who is taught that an answer can be right or wrong, “one” or “zero,” but not anything in between. It was felt that if you were wrong you were done no favor in being told you were right, or half-right, or had made a decent try…

That is not to say that the system was entirely objective. One who thought the lab occasionally used the brutish spirit of Dealer to enforce its own prejudgments was Bob Metcalfe, who arrived at CSL in 1972 with the reassuring credentials of a Harvard and MIT education. Metcalfe was acerbic and free-speaking, a man who never met an ego he couldn’t pierce. At Dealer his radar often detected the unmistakable “ping” of people pulling rank.

“I’m being cynical now, but if you were from Berkeley or MIT or, especially, CMU, you’d give your talk, you’d get some questions, you’d get congratulated, and you’d get your job offer,” he said. “But if you were some poor schmuck from the University of Arizona, they’d grill you and it was all over. In other words, if the department head at CMU said you were cool, that was good enough for them.”

*The name comes from Beat the Dealer, MIT math professor Edward O. Thorp’s seminal book on black jack and card-counting. Just as the dealer in black jack competes against everyone at the table, PARC’s weekly meetings would place one researcher at the the center of the discussion, forcing him/her to present an idea and defend it.

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4 Responses to PARC: What’s w/the Shagadelic Carpet & Beanbag Chairs?

  1. Rob Beschizza says:

    The carpet graphical user interfaces were conceived on!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey, if it weren’t for those beanbag chairs you’d be paying triple for ethernet. If it ever made it commercially at all, that is.

    The reason Xerox threw away the mouse, the GUI, and peer-to-peer asynchronous networking (thus enabling Apple, Geo, and Novell to pick them up and run) was because Xerox brass could not believe those long haired kids with the beanbag chairs could possibly create something commercially viable. Seriously, those beanbag chairs were part of the mistake that built the modern world!

  3. dculberson says:

    I want some of the stimulants that graphical user interfaces were conceived on.

  4. Narual says:

    *laugh* My chair is currently resting on top of that same carpet. Our trademark color is “terra cotta” and in practice usually translates to orange. I think this carpet’s been here since the 70s, too..

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