NEW YORK - Jacob E. Goldman, a physicist who as chief scientist at Xerox founded the company’s vaunted Palo Alto Research Center, which invented the modern personal computer, died Tuesday in Westport, Conn. He was 90.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Melvin said.
Emblematic of a time when US corporations invested heavily in basic scientific research, Dr. Goldman played an important role both at the Ford Motor Co. during the 1950s and later at Xerox in the 1960s and 1970s, in financing basic scientific research in an effort to spark corporate innovation.
In the late 1960s, Xerox, then the dominant manufacturer of office copiers, was looking for ways to move into new markets when he proposed an open-ended research laboratory to explore what C. Peter McColough, chief executive at the time, called “the architecture of information.’’ Computer systems were not available in offices at that time, and little was known about the shape of what would come to be called “the office of the future.’’
Xerox had recently acquired Scientific Data Systems, a computer maker in California, to compete with IBM in the data-processing market. At the time, however, computers were largely centralized systems that were not interactive. The minicomputer market was just being pioneered by Digital Equipment Corp.
Xerox did not initially have a grand strategy for the computing business, only an inkling that the data-processing world was both an opportunity and a potential threat.
“He was the one that made sure that Xerox understood there was a revolution coming behind them that might change their business,’’ said Michael Hiltzik, author of “Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age.’’
Dr. Goldman had originally been brought from Ford to Xerox by John Bardeen, who was on the Xerox board and was also a physicist. Bardeen knew Dr. Goldman in part for running a well-known poker game every year at the American Physical Society meeting, according to his son.
The Xerox lab was almost stillborn in 1970 when many of the company’s directors resisted the idea of a West Coast center in an area in which the company did not have an active business. It was Bardeen who backed Dr. Goldman’s early vision and persuaded the company to support the venture even though it would not bear fruit any time soon.
Established in 1970 in an industrial park next to Stanford, PARC researchers designed an array of computer technologies, including the Alto personal computer, the Ethernet office network, laser printing, and the graphical user interface.
The technologies would later be commercialized by both Apple Computer and Microsoft, among others, and Xerox would be criticized for not capitalizing on the technologies it had pioneered - for “fumbling the future.’’
Dr. Goldman explained Xerox’s failure to enter the personal computing market early on as part of a large corporation’s unwillingness to take risks.
“A big company will not make the investment to bring out a new product unless they see it makes a big difference,’’ he said in a 1988 interview in The New Haven Advocate. “Look at the personal computer industry today. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry today. And we at Xerox could have had that industry to ourselves.’’
Dr. Goldman, who was often called Jack, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended Yeshiva University and received a master’s degree and a doctorate in physics from the University of Pennsylvania.