1968: Computer scientist Douglas Engelbart kicks off the personal computer revolution with a product demonstration that is so amazing it inspires a generation of technologists. It will become known as “the mother of all demos.”
The presentation included the debut of the computer mouse, which Engelbart used to control an onscreen pointer in exactly the same way we do today. For a world used to thinking of computers as impersonal boxes that read punched cards, whir awhile, then spit out reams of teletype paper, this kind of real-time graphical control was amazing enough.
But Engelbart went beyond merely demonstrating a new input device — way beyond. His demo that day in San Francisco’s Brooks Hall also premiered “what you see is what you get” editing, text and graphics displayed on a single screen, shared-screen videoconferencing, outlining, windows, version control, context-sensitive help and hyperlinks. Bam!
What’s more, it was likely the first appearance of computer-generated slides, complete with bullet lists and Engelbart reading aloud every word onscreen. Fortunately, the proto-PowerPoint section only made up a small fraction of his otherwise understated and impressive tour de force. And though it took years for the industry to catch up, many later computer scientists acknowledged their debt to Engelbart.
The demo was the fruit of nearly 10 years’ work into ways that computers might be used to help ordinary people work better on intellectual tasks. And by “intellectual,” Engelbart wasn’t thinking of analyzing data on nuclear fission experiments, he was thinking of ordinary office workers whose jobs involved writing memos, looking up information, filing things, communicating with others, persuading groups of people through presentations, and working collaboratively to solve difficult problems.
While most computer scientists concentrated on making computers smart (artificial intelligence), Engelbart was interested in how computers could make humans smarter, or what he called augmented intelligence.
The initial inspiration for Engelbart’s life work came in the mid-1940s, when he was an electronics technician for the U.S. Navy. Looking at a radar screen, and perhaps inspired by Vannevar Bush’s groundbreaking essay “As We May Think,” Engelbart imagined a radarlike display that would let people manipulate symbols and concepts instead of merely monitoring bogies and blips.
At the Stanford Research Institute, a think-tank–research-lab offshoot of Stanford University, Engelbart was finally able to set up a lab, the Augmentation Research Center, to develop his ideas on computer-assisted intelligence.
By 1968, the lab had developed a complete system, which the researchers called NLS (a somewhat oblique abbreviation for oNLine System). The system included an SDS 940 mainframe computer with 12 time-sharing terminals — each of which had a keyboard, a cathode-ray–tube display, a mouse and a strange five-key “chord key set” for operators to enter commands. The SRI team ate their own dog food, too: They used NLS for their daily work, including using it to write and organize the code that ran NLS itself.
NLS was more difficult to learn than today’s graphical user interfaces, but for an adept user it was remarkably fast and efficient. Watching the film of Engelbart’s demo, even a modern-day computer user might feel envious at the speed and ease with which he moved words, sentences and outline headings on the page.
Helping Engelbart make the demo a success was a team of engineers back at SRI headquarters in Menlo Park. The computers were connected to Brooks Hall with a microwave link and two high-speed 1,200-baud modem lines (which were capable of not quite 1,200 bits per second, or about 0.3 percent the speed of a modern DSL line). And a young Stewart Brand — who would shortly launch The Whole Earth Catalog — operated one of the cameras in Menlo Park. Brand, along with others, would later take Engelbart’s ideas about computers, add a dose of psychedelia and populism, and kick off the personal computer revolution in earnest.
Engelbart’s career never again hit quite such a high note, and his ambitious visions for computer-assisted collaboration were never fully realized. While the tech industry enthusiastically adopted the mouse and many other innovations from his lab, few people carried forward the idea of making computers tools for collaborative problem-solving. Now 83 years old, Engelbart is still committed to his program — and still uses a version of NLS on his computer at home.
President Bill Clinton honored Engelbart in 2000 with the National Medal of Technology for his groundbreaking work in “creating the foundations of personal computing.”
An event at Stanford Tuesday commemorates the 40th anniversary of the historic demo.
Sources: SRI, Stanford University, Douglas Engelbart
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