Doug Engelbart's Mother of All Demos 50 years On
Written by Sue Gee   
Monday, 10 December 2018

It is 50 years since Douglas Engelbart presented a talk that came to be known as the  "Mother of All Demos".  The landmark event introduced many aspects of interactive computing, including the mouse. These ideas, now commonplace, were visionary in 1968 and must have stunned many in the audience.

December 9th, 1968 saw the first ever demonstration of video teleconferencing when Douglas Engelbart presented a 90-minute presentation, titled “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect" to a computer conference in San Francisco.

Instead of standing at a podium, Engelbart was seated at a custom designed console using a homemade modem he communicated with the NLS computer residing 30 miles away in his research lab at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), presenting pictures onto a large projection screen overhead, flipping seamlessly between his presentation outline and live demo of features, while members of his research lab at SRI demonstrated more of the system.

The delivery was mind-blowing but the content equally awesome. At the very start Engelbart asks:

 "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 responsible—responsive—to every action you had, how much value would you derive from that?" 

Then he goes on to demonstrate text manipulation with point-and-click and drag-and-drop using a weird little device he called a mouse, a name that stuck and the idea for which he is best remembered. The demo outlines the essentials of a graphical user interface (GUI), a term that took another two decades to be familiar jargon, plus hypermedia and hyperlinking, cross-file editing and collaborative groupware. 

From today's perspective the only odd idea in the presentation is the device on the right-hand side of his console, the keyset. This was a one-hand, five-key input device that allowed the user to type any character by pressing a combination of keys. Used by Engelbart himself 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.

For the audience in 1968 the idea of using a computer for the mundane task of organizing a shopping list, which is the topic of the first part of the presentation, must have seemed incredible. Computers then were vast and occupied separate spaces never accessed by those who used them via sets of punched cards. The process was prolonged, having handed over a program, even as a prepared deck of cards, it would be hours or days before a printout of the results was returned. The idea of "interactivity" must have seemed far fetched in the extreme. Yet 50 years on waiting even a matter of seconds for a response is often deemed unacceptable. 



Our article, Douglas Engelbart, has more about the man and his visionary ideas and the Mouse's tale has more about the device


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Last Updated ( Monday, 03 August 2020 )