Douglas Engelbart: A visionary ahead of his time
July 15, 2013
by Mark Ollig

It saddens me whenever I hear of the passing of an early computing pioneer.

Originally, I had planned to write about Douglas Engelbart for this year’s Dec. 9 column, as this date marks the 45th anniversary of his famous “Mother of All Demos” computing presentation.

Engelbart’s dream of creating a computerized, interactive workstation originated while serving in the Navy as a radar operator, in the Philippines, shortly after World War II.

He wondered why a computer could not be connected to a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) monitor screen, and be used for information interaction by a person in a workplace situation. He believed computer work stations could be networked with each other, allowing information to be shared among people.

Engelbart then began working at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) as a researcher, starting in 1957.

From 1959 to 1960, he was able to work on his dream computing project, with financial assistance from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

In one quarterly progress report, dated Oct. 30, 1959, Engelbart wrote, “The objective of this project is to provide organization and stimulation in the search for new and better ways to obtain digital manipulation of information.”

Starting in 1962, with funding from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), Engelbart was able to complete his work on a visionary computer system called the NLS (oN-Line System).

Engelbart would present the results of his work in 1968, during The Fall Joint Computer Conference Dec. 9 – 11 in San Francisco, CA.

At that time, Engelbart gave a mesmerizing look into the future of human-computer networking.

Engelbart, using his NLS computer-based, interactive multiconsole display system, gave a demonstration titled, “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect.”

This demonstration was given before the Fall Joint Conference attendees at Brooks Hall in San Francisco.

These attendees also witnessed a historical surprise.

“If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive, how much value could you derive from that?” Engelbart asked at the start of his presentation.

Engelbart’s onstage terminal console was connected to a huge 22-foot video projector.

The approximately 1,000 computing specialists in attendance could watch him on a large screen above the stage as he typed on his keyboard, while seeing what was being displayed on his CRT monitor screen.

His terminal console was also remotely linked via telephone lines to a computer located about 30 miles away, inside the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA.

The big surprise was the pointing device he used to move the cursor dot on the CRT monitor screen during the presentation. Engelbart called it a “mouse.”

Engelbart invented the point-and-click device we use today which we still call mouse.

It was five years earlier, when Engelbart first worked on the first mouse prototype.

Why was it called a “mouse?” He said someone suggested this name in 1963, because the cord connected to it looked like a tail, and the wooden, hand-held device was small, so they affectionately called it a mouse.

Unfortunately for Engelbart, the patent for his creation was owned by the company where he developed it: Stanford Research Institute.

He never received any monetary royalties for this invention, but the world acknowledges and credits him with its creation.

Engelbart has accepted many prestigious awards over his lifetime for his work in computer technology, and of course, for inventing the mouse.

In one interview, he thought they would eventually come up with a more official sounding description for the mouse, but said the name stuck.

Engelbart’s first curser pointing device, or mouse, is here: http://tinyurl.com/mouse1968.

While watching a video of the 1968 90-minute presentation, one of the many things which impressed me was the professionalism Engelbart exuded during the entire demonstration.

Engelbart fascinated those in attendance as he expertly revealed the way hypertext links between files worked, and how to use statement coding to manage and organize files, and sub-files.

While typing on the built-in keyboard inside the computer console, and using his mouse to move the cursor dot around on the monitor screen, he would code programs on-the-fly.

He also showed how one could manipulate and organize the information contained inside the text files.

Using “computer screen windowing,” Engelbart presented how one could simultaneously view separate information categories by displaying them inside overlaid “windows” using a single display monitor.

He also demonstrated 2-way “video-inset” conferencing over his computer’s monitor screen with fellow researchers, using their computer monitor screens back in Menlo Park. It was eerily similar to today’s video conferencing programs, such as Skype.

Remember, folks – this was being demonstrated in 1968.

His presentation was greeted, at times, with wonderment, and much applause at its conclusion.

However, his NLS computer system never become popular.

It was said the statement coding needed for the creation and management of program files was just too complicated for the average person to grasp.

Engelbart replied using this analogy, “The tricycle may be easier to learn and use, but it is hard work to travel even a short distance. Riding a bicycle calls for considerably more skill . . . but the effort-to-performance ratio is dramatically higher.”

He understood it can be difficult to learn new skills in order to become more productive.

Many of the researchers from SRI went on to work at the Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center).

In 1973, they built the Xerox Alto computer. The Alto used Xerox’s user-friendly GUI (Graphical User Interface), which took advantage of Engelbart’s mouse device for navigating through software programs.

Engelbart believed the use of computers would make the world a better place – and he was right.

In his later years, Engelbart spoke before students at universities and gave keynote speeches, seminars, and was interviewed countless times.

The National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest award for technology innovation, was presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Douglas C. Engelbart passed away July 2, at the age of 88.

The December 9, 1968 presentation video is located in the Internet archive at http://tinyurl.com/1968demo.

The Douglas Engelbart Institute is found at http://www.dougengelbart.org.

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