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GUI Timeline

History of Graphical User Interfaces, from the invention of the Trackball to Windows 11, macOS 12 and Linux WMs and DEs. I mostly use Wikipedia for this.

Table of Contents

Early days

1946 - The trackball was invented by Ralph Benjamin as a part of a post-WWII fire-control radar plotting system called the Comprehensive Display System or CDS.

1964 - The first ever computer mouse was invented, it was invented by Douglas Engelbart and built by both Bill English and Engelbart.

1968 - Engelbart publicly demostrated his work, Augmentation of Human Intellect (NLS) at Association for Computing Machinery / Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (ACM/IEEE) Computer Society's Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on December 9th, and it was so-called "The Mother of All Demos".

1973 - Xerox PARC created the Xerox Alto. While it was never commercially released, it was used by Xerox PARC employees and educational institutions. The total units ever produced were approximately 2000. You could see the real hardware at certain museums or use the ContrAlto emulator. A playlist of videos about restoring and showcasing the Xerox Alto can be found here by CuriousMarc.

1979 - Apple caught wind of the research by Xerox, so they begin the development of what it would be the Apple Lisa, with Steve Jobs, Jef Raskin and former Xerox PARC members, turning the Lisa from a more modern version of the Apple II design to a GUI machine (also due to factors such as replacing Rothmuller with John Couch.) They are also developing the Macintosh at around the same time.

1980 - Three Rivers officially launched PERQ, which design is based of the Xerox Alto. The system was considered the first ever personal workstation with a GUI. It later spawned 2 other revisions into the 80s.

1981 - Xerox Corp. released the Xerox Star system, based on their efforts. It was commercially released, retailing to 16,595 USD. (that's god damn expensive!) The system only sold 25,000 units, considering a failure by many. This was mainly because a complete setup costing around 50,000 to 100,000 USD, which is pretty darn expensive to an average secretary. The Star system can be emulated by using Darkstar, which is also developed by the same guys as ContrAlto.

1981 - Quintel released the Paintbox, which is used by major TV channels at the time, and revolutionized the production of TV graphics. Each unit sold for around 250,000 USD.

1981 - Microsoft started development of MUSH (Microsoft User Shell) or Interface Manager, a common interface library for all productivty software, such as Word and Multiplan.

Beginning of 1982 - Microsoft started a project based on GKS called GDI or Graphics Device Independence, with a goal of having a device independent implementation of it on MS-DOS.

Middle of 1982 - Microsoft decided to merge Interface Manager and GDI teams into one to develop a GUI-based package with device indpendent drawing, which gradually evolved into a GUI-based operating enviroment for MS-DOS, called Window Manager.

1982 - Steve Jobs was forced out of the Lisa project by Apple's Board of Directors, he then appropriated (or moved) to the Macintosh project by Jef Raskin, turning what it was initially a text based appliance computer to a more focused and less expensive version of the Lisa. I consider it as the most influencial move of all time but also a mistake in some degree as Lisa is technically more powerful than the original Mac 128k.

1982 - Bell Labs created the Blit terminal (standing for Bell Labs Intelligent Terminal). It was later commercialized by AT&T and Teletype in 1984.

1982 - Visi On was shown into COMDEX, and Bill Gates liked the concept, which helped to inspire the Window Manager project.

The Slow Rising


1983 - Digital Research made GSX (Graphical System Extension). It was used for DR Draw and DR Graph, and became GEM. Interestingly, Windows (or Interface Manager) originally plans to be a "installable device driver", since GSX was essentially that.

January - Apple released the Lisa, it's early foray in the GUI world. The Lisa sold poorly, with only 10,000 units, due to a lot of factors such as it's high price of around 10,000 USD, the FileWare floppy disks (or the "Twiggy" disk) being so unreliable and the release of the original Macintosh 128k a year later.

September - Window Manager was shown off on BYTE Magazine, featuring overlapping windows and showcasing both "uncooperative" and "cooperative" MS-DOS applications.

November - On November 10th, Bill Gates formally announced a GUI for the MS-DOS, known today as Windows. It features closely to the final version, with tiled windows (not due to copyright reasons but for usability reasons, as conducted by Xerox PARC.) It was planned to be released by April 1984 (it was slipped by an internal release date of late 1983), but later slipped multiple times until the final release date of November 1985, 2 years later.

November - Silicon Graphics Inc. (Yes, that SGI) released the IRIS computer line, starting with the 1000 model, with an 8MHz Motorola 68000 CPU. Up until the 3000 model, it used the M68k architecture, later IRIS models introduced a MIPS based processor.

December - VisiCorp introduced Visi On for IBM compatible systems, and it was considered a failure due to it's short lifespan. Even though it was a flop, it was ahead of it's time, but it was hindered by a lot of limitations.


January - Apple introduced the original Macintosh, which help popularize GUIs. It was a hit unlike Lisa, and it also introduced the now famous "1984" ad. It's initial price was around 6,500 USD and helped them to make into the big leagues.

June - X Windows System was introduced. It was fundemental for GUIs for Unix based systems like suckless dwm, XFCE, and many more. X was originated as part of Project Athena at MIT in that year. The protocol was in version 11 (hence "X11") three years later. Currently, the X.Org foundation leads the X11 project.

November - Tandy released DeskMate, originally designed for the TRS-80 line of computers but eventually shifted to MS-DOS. The MS-DOS ports initially run on Tandy's hardware like the Tandy 1000 but later added compatibility with other IBM PC compatibles.


1985 - GEOS was released for the Commodore 64 and later the Apple II. A version of it for IBM PC compatibles called "PC/GEOS" was later released 5 years later. A version for some handheld platforms were apparently released.

February - GEM 1.0 was initially released. It can only run on IBM computers and not the wider PC compatibles in hopes of getting licenses. The UI looks similiar to the Macintosh Finder, Apple sued them, resulting the next version to be a simple file manager shell.

July - Commodore released the Amiga 1000 with Workbench 1.0. The machine was considered the most advanced multimedia computer, with an active demo scene and a ton of games initially made for it.

November - Microsoft finally released Windows 1.01 after 2 years since it's announcement. It originally used a tiled windowing system instead of an overlapping one, but with some hex editing, you could add it to Windows 1.0x. Here's the tutorial on BetaArchive, pretty wild stuff!


March - Apple Computer sued Digital Research Inc. because of the similiarities with GEM and Macintosh Finder. In response of this, they released GEM/2, a more "lawsuit-friendly" version. This version stripped out most of the aspects of the initial version, and instead became a glorified two panel file manager, with the same UI design as the previous version.

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