The concept and focus on Alpha comes from an observation increasingly made during the middle of the twentieth century, that around 75 percent of stock investment managers did not make as much money picking investments as someone who simply invested in every stock in proportion to the weight it occupied in the overall market in terms of market capitalization, or indexing. Many academics felt that this was due to the stock market being "efficient" which means that since so many people were paying attention to the stock market all the time, the prices of stocks rapidly moved to the correct price at any one moment, and that only random variation beyond the control of the manager made it possible for one manager to achieve better results than another, before fees or taxes were considered. A belief in efficient markets spawned the creation of market capitalization weighted index funds that seek to replicate the performance of investing in an entire market in the weights that each of the equity securities comprises in the overall market. The best examples are the S&P 500 and the Wilshire 5000 which approximately represent the 500 largest equities and the largest 5000 securities respectively, accounting for approximately 80%+ and 99%+ of the total market capitalization of the US market as a whole.
In fact, to many investors, this phenomenon created a new standard of performance that must be matched: an investment manager should not only avoid losing money for the client and should make a certain amount of money, but in fact should make more money than the passive strategy of investing in everything equally (since this strategy appeared to be statistically more likely to be successful than the strategy of any one investment manager). The name for the additional return above the expected return of the beta adjusted return of the market is called "Alpha".