The 5 technology breakthroughs that didn’t make money for their inventors

Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 invention of the World Wide Web, information spreads around the globe in seconds, instead of days.

The 5 technology breakthroughs that didn't make money for their inventors

Without it, breaking news could take hours, if not days; we wouldn’t hear from the man on the ground, governments wouldn’t be overthrown. Your average person wouldn’t be able to rise to meteoric fame in a matter of minutes. The world as we know it would be fundamentally different.

The internet and the World Wide Web are known entities. Those breakthroughs have been heralded as world-altering numerous times by multiple publications and figureheads. The internet may have been a revolution, but it certainly didn’t bring us mobile phones, electric cars or the Egg Cuber.

But what about the ground-shifting technological breakthroughs that fewer people remember? Some have simply been lost in the annals of time, while others are on the bleeding-edge of technological research, waiting for their time to shine.

That’s why we’ve set out to fix this problem, giving five incredible technological breakthroughs from the past and present the limelight they deserve.

Read on to find out exactly what the 5 are.


1. Xerox Alto & Xerox Star

The 5 most significant tech breakthroughs that didn't make money for their inventors - Alto/Star

Think of Xerox and you’ll think of copiers, printers and other slightly-mundane objects scattered around the office. But without Xerox, it’s unlikely we’d have the Mac, or Windows, or the computer as we know it today.

Back when computers were hulking beasts displaying no more than a few tens of characters on a line, Xerox was feverishly working away on one of the biggest breakthroughs in modern computing. Known as the Xerox Alto, and built in 1973 primarily as an experiment for its Palo Alto Research Centre, the computer never gained much recognition due to a small commercial rollout at an incredibly high price.

However, the technology the Alto contained was the start of something completely new. With the Alto, Xerox created the fundamentals of image rendering on computers. Through an imaging innovation known as BitBLT, images – called bitmaps – could be formed from binary information and then overlaid to create windowed environments or interactive elements.

Because of this technology, the Alto played host to the first WYSIWYG word processor and rudimentary video game projects. It heralded the future of computer design and created the foundations for the Xerox Star to build upon and thus is the hook every graphical user interface we use today hangs off.


The Star, released in 1981, featured ethernet connectivity, network printing, shared directories, internetwork routing, contained a “File” function and came bundled with a WYSIWYG editor as standard. The Star was completely ahead of its time.

Unfortunately, it was stratospherically expensive. Costing a staggering $16,000 a unit – $41,000 in today’s money – a business user would need at least two or three Stars to see any commercial benefit. For comparison, the more common Commodore VIC-20 cost just $300 per unit, or $771 in modern terms.

The Alto and the Star both missed their turn in the limelight, despite the incredible technological breakthroughs they made. While price certainly held them back from mass appeal, Xerox’s success was stolen away by a young and enterprising Steve Jobs.

Having visited Xerox’s PARC site in 1979, Jobs became interested in the Alto thanks to its graphical interface and use of a, then, unusual mouse. His trip spurred Xerox into sharing its expertise with Apple’s Lisa team, helping them understand how it had created a user interface, why bitmaps were important and where it believed the future of computing was headed.

Let’s be clear here, this wasn’t a business partnership, Xerox effectively gave its secrets away for absolutely nothing. It even gave Apple an Alto and a Star to dissect. Come 1983, two years after the Star released, Apple shipped the Lisa.

The 5 most significant tech breakthroughs you probably don’t know about - Apple Lisa

The Lisa was, yet another, commercial flop due to its price, but the features inside went on to inform the Apple II and cemented Apple’s dominance for technological innovation at the time. It effectively commercialised Xerox’s breakthrough, and didn’t owe them a single penny in doing so.

Since then the basic technology behind GUI hasn’t changed drastically. And now we use graphical interfaces for almost every single interaction we have with a screened electronic device.

The layouts may have changed, one being Microsoft Bob’s abysmal attempt at something new, but ultimately the windowed environment of the Xerox Star, and its early GUI has gone on to inform graphical interfaces for almost every single interaction we have with a screened electronic device.

Think of it this way, without Xerox’s breakthrough, would we have the World Wide Web as we know it today?

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