I just finished the Steve Jobs biography and I thought...

Was the apple Lisa really the first commercially available Graphical interface?

This is just out of interest but I'll be really interested to know!


Update April 2019

It looks as though the Three River PERQ was the first commercial machine, as per @MrTelly's answer.

Original Answer

I hate to quote Wikipedia as a source of truth, but I had a feeling that a Xerox product would take the claim, and it looks as though I was right.

The Star workstation, officially known as the Xerox 8010 Information System, was the first commercial system to incorporate various technologies that have since become standard in personal computers, including a bitmapped display, a window-based graphical user interface, icons, folders, mouse (two-button), Ethernet networking, file servers, print servers and e-mail.

The Xeros PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) is famously known as being the birthplace of bitmap displays and windowing GUIs, I just wasn't sure if it was commercialised before I looked it up.

  • 1
    I suppose it depends to a certain extent how you define "commercial" (the Lisa being obtainable by smaller businesses in theory), but the Star indeed pips it to the post. – John Parker Apr 20 '16 at 7:14
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    These "which came first" questions are very hard to answer with any accuracy. It is wildly known that the Apple II was the first "personal computer". That can be true or false. Depending on your definition of "personal computer". For example, the Sphere 1 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphere_1) came out before the Apple II, had similar specs (minus color)..similar cost. Yet, not many people know about it. Is it a "Personal Computer"? Oh, and for the record, I adore the Apple II...I just don't put a lot of thought in these "which came first" questions. :-) – cbmeeks Jan 9 '17 at 14:43
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    This computer is also particularly noteworthy as being the first to use the "hamburger icon" for menus, something which disappeared again during the 90s and 2000s but is commonly used today on mobile apps and websites. – Micheal Johnson Nov 17 '17 at 8:14
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    I used a Xerox Star before I used an Apple LIsa (I saw both at DEC, the Star at least belonged to people who had to write architectural docs). – another-dave Jan 5 at 23:22
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    But see my comment under @MrTelly's answer. I think the PERQ 1 beat the Xerox Star to market. – Theodore Norvell Apr 24 at 15:27

No the LISA wasn't the first. I used a Three River PERQ in 1988 for an early AI project/disseration. I acquired it for zero cost as it was obsolete, and I reckon some of it was at least 5 years old as I had to build one working machine from three donors. WikiPedia says it launched in the late 1970s. From memory the original price was GBP27,000 and the single user system was used for CAD and Chemical Engineering. I'd also expect a lot of these systems to turn up in the military, as that was one of ICL's main customers.

It had a reasonable GUI and a track pad with a pen/mouse, and a beautiful crisp paper white monitor which was setup in A4 portrait mode. Also weirdly the OS was Pascal based.

I assumed this was one of many small manufacturers attempts at getting a commercial WIMP machine into the market?

  • The PERQ 1 was launched in either 1979 or 1980, according to Wikipedia, which (now) lists both years in different places. The Xerox Star was introduced in April 1981, according to Wired. So it looks like the PERQ 1 may have been the first commercially available personal workstation. The PERQ 1 had a graphics tablet rather than a mouse; I don't see that that would disqualify it. Its OS supported a WIMP interface inspired by Xerox PARC's work, as can be seen here. – Theodore Norvell Apr 24 at 15:26

The Star was indeed the first commercially available. However, it wasn't something average people could even aspire to buying. The Lisa, while insanely overpriced, was technically available for everyday people to buy, and was certainly available for business users. The Star was very much a corporate beast at best.

  • I believe the Lisa listed for $10K USD in today's money. You would have to be one MOTIVATED average person to justify that cost. :-) Remember, in the early 80's we knew we wanted computers but we didn't know why...the average person, that is. I knew exactly why I wanted computers. :-) – cbmeeks Nov 23 '16 at 18:33
  • @cbmeeks $10K is pretty comparable to the cost of a high-end, tricked out PC compatible at the time. Private individuals did indeed spend that kind of money (although not in large numbers) and it wasn't particularly unheard of to finance a PC purchase in the same way you'd finance a new car, which were similarly expensive. – mnem Jan 9 '17 at 6:13
  • @mnem I doubt the numbers were high at all. Individuals may have financed a $10K computer at the time but it was more than likely for a business. The average income wasn't much more than that in the early 80's. It would be like a person today spending $30-40k on a gaming PC. Sure, there are people rich enough to do that. But the "average Joe"? Not so much. – cbmeeks Jan 9 '17 at 14:35
  • @cbmeeks: It's $10K in TODAY's money so it would be like a person today spending $10K on a gaming PC, not $30-40K – slebetman Jan 9 '17 at 17:19
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    The Apple Lisa was $9,995 in 1983$, which is $24,420 in 2016$. The Star was $16,595 in 1981$, which is $44,438 in 2016$. So their prices are both in the same order of magnitude. – snips-n-snails Jan 9 '17 at 19:23

An early (1964) commercial graphical interface was IBM's 2250 Display Unit, based on its experience with SAGE. This CRT had a 1K x 1K display that could be used for drawings, tables, or text. Interaction was through a keyboard or light pen. Users could perform image operations such as draw, erase, move, rescale, and restructure. (Source: IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems, page 602, which I was coincidentally just reading.)

The IBM system was considerably different from a modern mouse-based GUI, which may be what the original question is really looking for. In that case, the Xerox Alto (1973) would probably be the first widely-used GUI system (but not sold commercially) and the Xerox Star (1981) the first commercially-available system.


It depends on exactly what you mean. The Physics department I did my MSc at was using a graphics terminal years before the Lisa came out. The terminal was a Tektronix (might have been a 4010) attached to a PDP-11. (OK, it might have been a KJV8I; I remember it as a Tex because that's what it looked like.) There were LOTS of these things around. The screen could display text or vector graphics (not raster graphics), and there was a light pen, so you could point and select. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tektronix_4010

Don't forget all the 8-bit machines that preceded the Lisa, including the Apple 2.

  • do possibly you mean the GT40 the display that the famous moon program ran on ? the 4010 was a common graphics terminal used on many systems at that time – Neuromancer Feb 10 '18 at 20:40
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    I too used Tektronix vector displays in the 1970s (at university) but I wouldn't call that a use of a "graphical interface" in the sense that it's used today as the UI to diverse computer functions. My use might have even required using an ASR33 as the UI, and running a program to drive output to the Tek sitting next to it. I forget, it was a long time ago. – another-dave Jan 5 at 23:28
  • Graphics as commands over a serial connection must have been noticeably slow? – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jan 7 at 0:40
  • Graphics output is not a graphical interface. Whatever machine you were connected to was not operated through a GUI. The same is true for machines like the Apple II, you operated it via text commands. – Maury Markowitz Jan 7 at 19:20
  • @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen - there were lots of tricks they used to speed things up, but yeah, it was slow. There's some movies on YouTube you might enjoy: youtube.com/watch?v=tpD1QXvtlcg – Maury Markowitz Jan 7 at 19:22

Clearly, it depends a lot on how you define "graphical interface". I recall seeing a lunar landing game being played on the console of a Cyber-170 sometime in the 70s. They were vector graphics terminals and had no graphical input. There are similar consoles on the CDC 6600 which was first delivered in 1965. The lunar lander game also worked on the CDC-6000 (See Bruce B.'s comment here.) This might explain the long turn-around times.

CDC console

The consoles were made by Data Display Inc., which CDC bought in 1965. They sold terminals starting in 1961. The terminal and computer were sold separately, and it might have taken some work to hook them up, as described here.. So in 1961 or so, for less than $3 million (USD) you could buy an IBM 709 and a Data Display terminal for it, to make a nice graphics computer.

A picture made on the dd80


The Macintosh and the Lisa were directly inspired by the Xerox Alto, which was announced in early 1973. There were about 500 of them in use outside Xerox, so I guess you could call that commercial. The Alto is definitely where the WIMP GUI style first became generally known. There was an earlier system called NewsHall, not at Xerox, and someone who had worked on NewsHall told me that the core WIMP ideas actually came from that, but I have no references for it. I would take the Alto as the answer.

Of course there were plenty of earlier commercial computer systems with graphics output, and with light pen input. I used a PDP-11 system like that before I ever saw an Alto.

  • The Alto was one of the most innovative machines ever built. I think the question is whether it was commercial. A 1981 byte article quotes a price of $32,000. And 2,000 were produced. About 1,000 were used within Xerox and many were used outside. But were any actually sold and delivered prior to the PERQ 1 in Fall of 1980? – Theodore Norvell Apr 25 at 20:45

I'm going to contend that that PERQ 1 beat the Xerox Star to market. The PERQ 1 was very much inspired by the Xerox Alto and its successors. There is a detailed history of the PERQ 1 and its relationship with ICL and the British Science and Engineering Research Council here. .

Based on that source, the PERQ was announced in 1979, launched in April 1980, and delivered, in fall of 1980, thus beating Xerox, Apollo, Sun, and of course Apple to the market. When delivered it already had a windowing system and presumably a WIMP interface.

The PERQ 1 base configuration

  • A 1 MIP microprogrammed 16-bit processor with Pascal P-Codes as the order code.
  • 256 Kbytes of memory.
  • 12 Mbyte disc.
  • 768 × 1024 bit map display.
  • Keyboard, RS-232 interface, IEEE-488 GPIB.
  • Graphics tablet.
  • Cost between 20,000 US dollars and 20,000 British pounds.

The image below is from August of 1980. Shortly before the first deliveries. (For younger readers, the object on the left is an ashtray.)

enter image description here

Here we see the system box too.

enter image description here


Another graphical computer launched before the Lisa was the Lilith, originally developed for internal use at ETH Zürich after Niklaus Wirth (of Pascal fame) had done a sabbatical at Xerox PARC. It served as the development platform for Pascal's successor language Modula-2, and at first built only for use at the computer science faculty of ETH ("the Swiss MIT").

It was equipped with a high-resolution graphic display, a simple windowing system and a mouse. An attempt was made to commercialise the technology in 1982, but given up as soon as 1983, after little more than 100 computers being sold.


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