Douglas Engelbart
Saturday, 05 December 2009
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Douglas Engelbart
Beyond the mouse


Sometimes it doesn't pay to be too far ahead of the pack. If your ideas are so revolutionary that they are difficult to implement using the technology of the time then people will think that you are a dreamer. This is a terrible fate but a much worse fate is to be so far ahead of other people's thinking that they don't even recognise what you are saying as a dream.


One of the great pioneers of computing - Douglas Engelbart - suffered exactly this problem. Today we remember him as the inventor of the mouse, but this was just a small part of the total dream. Doug Engelbart was probably the first man to understand the true potential and purpose of the digital computer. It seems a shame that all we remember is the mouse.



Douglas Engelbart,

born January 30, 1925, Oregon, USA

died July 2, 2013 California, USA


Doug Engelbart's first encounter with what we would now call "the man machine interface" was during a two-year spell as an electronic technician during World War II. Although this interrupted his studies it brought him into contact with people using the first visual display units - radars.

After he graduated in Electronic engineering he found himself doing odd jobs for the Ames Research Laboratory in California. He was already a deep thinker and ambitious. He was searching for something to change the world with. After considering a wider range of options he realised that the effort involved in retraining for an alternative discipline, no matter how important it appeared to be, was too much of an uphill struggle to guarantee excellence. He needed something closer to electronics.

Then he had three insights into the emerging modern life. Firstly the difficulty of mankind's problems was increasing faster than the ability to cope; because of this the goal of boosting mankind's ability to cope with complex problems was urgent and finally the key to achieving this boost was the use of graphics.

Graphics as the key

It seems likely that the belief that graphics was the key to boosting efficiency came from those early days of watching people work with radar screens. This may have been the origin of the idea but Engelbart's idea went well beyond this. He conceived of the free mix of text and graphics in documents and of users working together courtesy of electronic systems. He committed himself to a career working on "augmenting the human intellect".

Engelbart enrolled as a graduate student at Berkeley where there was a department working on building digital computers. Sadly it became clear that his goal of creating interactive applications was not something that would ever prove acceptable to the university community - he had to take a detour to actually get his PhD.

Equipped with a PhD he moved to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Progress was slow and funding difficult to get. What was worse he found it almost impossible to explain his ideas to other workers. Every time he explained what it was he wanted to create they assumed that he was talking about something they understood and were working on. It was all too common that his grand vision was reduced to "just another information retrieval system" but wrapped up in fancy philosophical terms. His fellow workers couldn't understand why he didn't just join the mainstream. The same attitude was also responsible for the difficulty in obtaining funding.

In 1963 Engelbart attempted to lay out his ideas as a conceptual framework in a paper which became the chapter of a book. To be honest from today's viewpoint this seems very vague and philosophical - but it contains all of the principles that he was to put into practice in the coming years. His first break came when in 1962 J.C.R. Licklider took over the newly formed Information Processing Techniques Office. Licklider had said that "man machine symbiosis" was one of his stated aims so how could he turn down Engelbart's proposals?

Although Engelbart wanted to build a local workstation he was "encouraged" to use a link to an FSQ/32 machine - the computer used in the Whirlwind defence system. Later Engelbart used an early minicomputer - the CD 160a with 8K 12-bit words and a 12 microsecond cycle time. This wasn't the interactive set-up he was looking for but it was state-of-the-art.

A better pointing device

In early 1964 Engelbart's group started to look at the problem of user interaction with the machine. They had a video display as an output device but the keyboard didn't seem to be its equal as an input device. You could look at the screen and see what it was showing you but typing was a far less natural skill. They needed a pointing device. At the time light pens and trackball were the standard pointing devices but Engelbart wanted to see if there was anything better.

There is no real information as to why or how he thought of trying an upside down trackball but he did and so invented the mouse.



An upside-down trackball, aka the mouse

It wasn't his only attempt at a pointing device. He tried a knee driven device that left both hands free - but knee fatigue set in and reduced the pointing efficiency.


An alternative knee pointing device
which proved unworkable

In every case the mouse won over the others. They left all of the pointing devices connected to try to see which one users preferred but after a while it became so clear that the mouse was the only one they actually used that they disconnected the others.





Last Updated ( Thursday, 04 July 2013 )

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