Douglas Engelbart - The Man Who Invented The Future
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Douglas Engelbart - The Man Who Invented The Future
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The Mother Of All Demos

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 recognize 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,

January 30, 1925 to July 2, 2013

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 realized 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.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 16 February 2019 )