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

Why the mouse

Now for the great question. Why was it called a mouse? Some people have said that it was because the connecting lead looked like a mouse's tail. Engelbart is less clear about the origin of the name. and is even more surprised that after so many years the name has stuck. At first he couldn't understand why the mouse didn't catch on quicker than it did. Then when it did he couldn't understand why users didn't seek something even better!

He always thought that the mouse was just a stop-gap measure until something better was invented - but this seems unlikely unless you are willing to look towards the very long term future and some form of "thought control" or direct man-machine connection. The mouse is an optimal pointing device in the sense that it can be proved that, given time to adjust to its use, you can point with it as easily as with your finger.

The Keyset

The mouse may have caught on but his second great input innovation is yet to find popular acceptance. The keyset was a five-key one-hand keyboard that allowed the user to type any character by pressing a combination of keys. It was easy to use and faster than the traditional keyboard but, like other alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard, never managed to establish itself as a standard.



The keyset - intended for faster, one-handed typing


Although the mouse is what we remember, Engelbart's experiments went much, much further. The video displays used stroke graphics rather than bitmapped graphics and this made the mixing of text and pictures natural. The software that they developed made use of windowing to allow the user to view different documents at the same time. It also worked with an early imagesetter to allow documents with mixed text and images to be produced. They also implemented e-mail and a shared journal system based on ARPANET. The journal was eventually developed into a linked structured document that was the forerunner of hypertext software.

With all of this going on the only surprising thing was that the world wasn't beating a path to their door. After all they may not have invented a better mouse trap - but they had invented the mouse and a whole lot more!

In a last ditch effort to convince the world to take notice, Engelbart and his group applied to give a special presentation at the 1968 Joint Computer Conference. This was a make or break gamble. The presentation involved a huge 20-screen video projector. Live video and computer links were set up using microwave dishes - really advanced and expensive technology for the time.

The presentation was a stunning tour de force of technology. The presentation showed a windowed display with text and graphics freely mixed. There was also a live video window which allowed what we would now call video conferencing.

The technology was so impressive that it is possible that many of the audience may have missed the real point of the demonstration - humans working with computers in a completely new way so as to enhance their ability to organise information, solve problems and communicate.

The audience must surely have come away realising for possibly the first time the potential of the technology that they were involved with. Alan Kay, the man we most often think of as responsible for the interactive computing environment we call the GUI, was in the audience. He thought that Engelbart was like Moses opening the Red Sea. An prophet of biblical stature doing things that we still only dream about today. Engelbart had demonstrated the principles of personal computing and workgroup computing at a time when most of the computing world thought that punched cards were the way to do things.

The presentation was a success but it had little immediate effect. Engelbart must have been saddened and mystified as to why the world did not want his advanced systems that so clearly enhanced the human ability to think and organise information. In retrospect the reason is easy to see. The hardware that Engelbart's system needed was just far too expensive. Not only was it too expensive at the time but it seemed unlikely that it would ever be cheap enough to be used to create personal workstations.

Later a number of Engelbart's colleagues moved to Xerox PARC to work on the Xerox Star project. This is the system that is usually quoted as being the first personal workstation. The Xerox Star then led on directly to the Apple Mac and to the dominant GUI of modern times, i.e. Windows.

The Augmentation Lab was disbanded in 1976 and Engelbart went to work for Tymshare which was later taken over by McDonnell Douglas. Although he carried on applying his visionary framework principles to smaller projects there were no more grand schemes or demonstrations. He admits to spending time wondering why his ideas hadn't caused the revolution he was seeking. After all they had worked and had been demonstrated to work in spectacular fashion.

Even the humble mouse took far more years to catch on than seems reasonable for an evidently good idea. The reason is that Engelbart was just too far ahead. How many of the audience in 1968 could have gone out and implemented a system anything like what they had seen? In a world dominated by the punch card and printout the mouse simply had no place!

Even the experiments at Xerox PARC in the mid 70s failed to find a larger audience because of the high cost of the hardware involved. Engelbart's ideas had to wait until the microprocessor became powerful enough to implement a personal workstation at a personal price before they could become the standard way of doing things.

What is more surprising is that we are still trying to implement many of his ideas - and now we don't have the excuse that the hardware is too expensive. Doug Engelbart may not have caused the revolution he wanted at the time he wanted it but it did happen and it is still happening.

In 1988 Doug and his daughter, Christina Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Alliance, now renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute to further the idea of improving the ability to address complex, urgent problems. As Doug sees it, both the rate and the scale of change are increasing very rapidly worldwide, and people need to get faster and smarter at anticipating, assessing, and responding to important challenges collectively to stay ahead and thrive as a planet. In his terms, we need to boost our Collective IQ.




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