Women Who Changed Tech - Dr. Adele Goldberg


In a previous post, we shared a video about five trailblazers who paved the way for future generations. This is the second blog in a series, where we will delve into the stories of these pioneering women and explore how their innovations have shaped the world we know today.

In our last blog post, we took a journey back to the 1800s to visit the high-society world of the first computer programmer and her eccentric inventor mentor. Now, we’re fast-forwarding 150 years to another visionary programmer, Dr. Adele Goldberg. Read on to learn about user interfaces, an iconic Super Bowl commercial, and how to pronounce “GUI.”

Programming with Physical Wires

Dr. Adele Goldberg, American computer scientist, entrepreneur, mother, and educator, is one of the inventors of the programming language Smalltalk—80. This language helped make computers accessible to the masses, turning displays of lines of text into a digital representation of something even our ancestors would recognize: a desktop.

Dr. Adele Goldberg

Born Cleveland, Ohio in 1945, Goldberg developed a love for math at a young age. She began her career with computers after her junior year of college as a summer clerk in an IBM “Installation Center.” There, she worked with unit record machines (which were basic accounting machines), specifically their hole-filled physical boards. In an interview with the IEEE History Center in 2002, she described the process as similar to a telephone operator switchboard. Goldberg explained that “sets of holes serve as temporary storage locations, or registers. You run physical wires from register to register to transfer the data or process the data. That was ‘programming’!”

Thinking Outside the Classroom

While pursuing her PhD in information science as a visiting student at Stanford University in 1973, Goldberg met Xerox employee John Shoch at a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer Users in Education. Shoch shared his plans for the Dynabook, a computer designed for children’s personal, on-the-go education. Goldberg was already passionate about expanding education outside the classroom, and immediately fell in love with the idea. She later met Shoch’s colleague, Alan Kay, who offered her a position at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). She began working there later that year and was promoted to manager of the Systems Content Library (SCL), a group within PARC that would soon develop Smalltalk—80.

Smalltalk languages (there were a few iterations before Smalltalk—80) are object-oriented. This is different from the procedure-oriented languages that only allow users to work with keyboard commands. Object-oriented languages classify everything as an ‘object’ and each object has a specific set of functions and structural parts that defines what it can do. For example, a window object might have functions like 'open' and 'close', and structural parts like 'title bar' and 'minimize button'. Smalltalk users could, if they wished, make changes to integral parts of objects while their system was running to truly personalize how they viewed and worked with a computer’s information.

Goldberg and her colleagues were inspired by children's learning and wanted users to be able to easily explore objects on their computers. In an interview with IEEE, Goldberg explained that they aimed for users to think “Oh, I like what that looks like; how do I take it apart and see what it’s made up of and then change it?” This flexibility, Goldberg hoped, would encourage people to adopt personal computers and make them their own. But it also had to look good.  

I’m Going to Make Them an Interface That Can’t Confuse

Goldberg and her colleagues used a graphical user interface (or ‘GUI,’ pronounced ‘gooey’) with Smalltalk—80, to make computing easier to understand and more accessible to the general public. The GUI displayed digital representations of physical desktops on computer screens, complete with icons resembling paper folders, sticky notes, and garbage bins. This approach allowed users to better understand how to interact with information on their computer screens, and a mouse was employed to make navigation even more intuitive. Goldberg's contributions as the 'godmother of GUI' have helped to pave the way for modern user interfaces.

The group of visual elements that make up most GUIs are referred to as WIMP—windows, icons, menus, and pointers. Information is displayed in windows, represented by icons, organized in menus, and manipulated by pointers (most commonly, a mouse). 

Before GUIs, computer screens displayed only rows and rows of text and were manipulated solely by keyboard commands, making for a purely text-based operating system called command-line interface (CLI). Becoming proficient with CLI involved a steep learning curve, as users had to learn specific and sometimes long strings of commands to get their computer to do what they wanted. Instead, GUIs made interfaces intuitive and aesthetically pleasing, while also improving efficiency and productivity.

1984: The Commercial

As our world grows increasingly technically advanced, aspects of computer history like the floppy disk icon for “Save,” are becoming unrecognizable. However, even though smaller and lighter laptops diminished the need for physical desks, the desktop-oriented interface stuck around. That is, if you don’t consider Apple.

Steve Jobs was shown an early version of Smalltalk (Smalltalk—76) at PARC in 1979. Impressed with the code’s flexibility and its GUI, Jobs incorporated it into Apple’s upcoming computer, the Macintosh.

The commercial for the Apple Macintosh is iconic. Directed by Ridley Scott, it aired during Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, and features a sledgehammer smashing a screen, on which a Big Brother-like figure speaks about unification of thought to suit-clad clones. The ad concludes with Apple’s promise that their Macintosh will demonstrate why the year 1984 won’t be like 1984 (George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel).

The commercial highlights the significant role GUIs played in transitioning computing from rigid technical environments to widespread use among the general public.  Jobs and Goldberg wanted to bring the computer out of the tech and business worlds, and GUIs facilitated this by enabling simple and intuitive interactions.

Apple has since popularized post-WIMP GUIs with their iPhone and iPad in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Most notably, a user’s finger has replaced the mouse (the “P” in WIMP), enabling even more simple and flexible manipulation of text with multi-finger zooming and rotating. More recently, traditional user interfaces, whether graphical or otherwise, have been giving way to emerging technologies such as voice-activated digital assistants, augmented reality (AR), and gesture recognition.

"You Can’t Not Do It Because Socially It’s Not the Thing to Do”

Goldberg did much to promote Smalltalk—80. She helped write and edit a feature on the language for BYTE Magazine in 1981, which introduced the broader tech world to object-oriented programming. She also founded ParcPlace, a company under Xerox PARC to market and popularize the language, and wrote and co-wrote important books on Smalltalk, most notably Smalltalk—80: The Language and Implementation.  

Smalltalk-80 The Language and its Implementation by Adele Goldberg and David Robson

Goldberg has received numerous awards. She won the ACM Software Systems Award in 1987 (along with co-developers of Smalltalk—80, Alan Kay and Dan Ingalls), received PC Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, and was inducted into the Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame in 2010.

Despite encountering negative attitudes about women’s presence in the computing world, Goldberg recalls the support she and other women received from Xerox. Alan Kay hired two women as programmers despite their strictly secretarial work history and had no reservations about hiring a pregnant Goldberg in 1973. Her research position provided her with a flexible work environment to accommodate her children. One night, while working in the office with a fussy, nursing infant, a male colleague carried and soothed the infant so that Goldberg and her group could complete their work for the evening. “I thought, ‘Wow! I can’t believe he’s doing that!’” Goldberg told the IEEE History Center.

Goldberg offers this advice for young women: “Knowing about computers, and knowing about math, is just a basic skill these days, so you need to learn something about both. You can’t not do it because socially it’s not the thing to do […] It’s hard to say that to teenage girls, but they do need to stay focused on these things.”

Building Blocks

Goldberg, Kay, and Jobs wanted people to interact with personal computers in ways that made sense to them. Jessica Johnson, a graphic designer for Extreme Networks, echoes this idea of adaptability when thinking about the future of GUIs.

“GUIs and any form of digital platform has been a continuous evolution since we moved away from coding” Johnson recognizes, “and is now a form of visual communication that is a language all on its own."

She believes that technology can open new opportunities by breaking away from the standard, but even emerging interfaces (like those in AR, gesture recognition, and voice control) still need to be built from what people are familiar with. “Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how amazing a new idea is, no one will understand how to interact with it.”

New virtual reality (VR) painting technology, Johnson mentions, allows users to paint in the air as if they were sculpting in 3D (instead of on a flat canvas), but still uses elements of older digital painting program interfaces for things like tool and color selection.

“It’s a fine balance between being innovative and alienating your users,” she advises. "You need to utilize that language people are familiar with […] This is the foundation of every successful user experience.” 

About the Author
Extreme Office of the CTO - OCTO
Office of the CTO

The Office of the CTO at Extreme Network analyzes forthcoming inflection points and trends for a wide audience – a relatable, trusted resource for future facing, new ideas at the cutting edge of technology and networking.

Full Bio