Profile: Douglas Engelbart, Inventor of Mouse, 1925-2013

engelbart

On a December afternoon in 1968, Douglas Engelbart stood on the stage of the civic auditorium in downtown San Francisco with a message for the world he wasn’t sure anyone wanted to hear.

The 43-year-old researcher had worked for years, often alone and in relative obscurity, on developing the idea that computers were interactive tools that could help humans direct their own intellectual evolution. Colleagues had warned him to keep his “crazy” notions to himself, lest he derail his career. Others questioned whether the work he was doing even qualified as science.

On the auditorium stage, during the 1968 Fall Joint Computing Conference, Engelbart sat below a large video screen that showed images of his face as he spoke and of his hands entering commands into an off-site computer system located about 30 miles away at his Menlo Park, Calif., lab. The system was patched together with some microwave towers, television channels rented from the local phone company and a homemade modem.

One of the contraptions Engelbart used to input commands was a funny-looking, plastic device he built in his lab that resembled a small box on wheels. He called it a mouse.

Engelbart acknowledges now that the presentation, which included demonstrations of a graphical user interface (GUI), as well as the concepts of linking and online collaboration, could easily have backfired. Any glitches and he, along with his unpopular ideas, would likely be summarily dismissed. “We stuck our necks out like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.

But when the hour-and-a-half-long presentation ended, Engelbart was met with something he never expected: a standing ovation.

“My jaw dropped because everybody was standing up applauding,” he said.

20-year journey

It had been a long time coming. More than 20 years before, as a 20-year-old naval radar technician at the end of World War II, Engelbart had come across the first piece of the puzzle that led up to that day in 1968.

On the South Pacific island of Laiti, Engelbart had discovered a native hut that had been transformed into a Red Cross library. There, he read a magazine article by Vannevar Bush, a mathematician who was the director of the federal Office of Research and Development during the war. The article discussed the problem of the proliferation of knowledge fueled by advancements in science and technology. Bush mentioned a hypothetical machine, called a memex, that could extend human memory. “It captured my imagination,” Engelbart said.

Back in the states after the war, Engelbart, a Portland, Ore., native and grandson of pioneers, finished his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at Oregon State University and then took a job in California at Ames Laboratory, a forerunner of NASA.

As a child of the Great Depression, Engelbart had fairly straightforward goals: find a good job, get married and raise a family. While working at Ames, Engelbart met his future wife and, in 1950, when he was 25 years old, they became engaged. At that point, he realized his life was pretty much set on its path, except for his career. So Engelbart turned his mind to his professional goals. What he wanted, he recalls, was “a crusade.”

Harkening back to Bush’s ideas on the proliferation of knowledge, Engelbart remembers thinking, “All the complex management problems of the world need to be dealt with cooperatively. What if I did something to boost our collective ability?”

Then came a moment of inspiration. Drawing on his wartime experience with radar, Engelbart realized that if computers could read punch cards and send information to a printer, they could certainly be programmed to generate images on a screen. He envisioned something we know quite well today.

“I got a picture of interactivity,” Engelbart said. In his vision, information was “portrayed symbolically” on terminals, and people sat at workstations accessing and sharing that symbolic information. “Within 20 minutes to a half-hour, the whole thing about computers and all the rest flooded in,” he said.

Right then and there, Engelbart became committed to pursuing the idea of using computers to promote collaborative problem-solving and to augment human intellect. He admits that at the time it was “a crazy idea,” but it was an idea he would remain committed to his entire life. “Boy, I was hooked then, and never got unhooked,” he said.

The following year, Engelbart left Ames to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. But he didn’t encounter much interest in his ideas there or at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, where he worked after graduate school. It was a lonely time, he said. After a presentation he gave at Stanford, some scientists took him aside and told him all he was really talking about was information retrieval. “They took me out to a picnic table on the campus and told me, ‘Stop all this talk about using computers for learning or you’re gonna get clobbered professionally,’ ” Engelbart said.

Still, he persisted, formalizing his ideas in the 1963 paper, “A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man’s Intellect.” In the paper, Engelbart wrote: “By ‘augmenting man’s intellect,’ we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, gain comprehension to suit his particular needs and to derive solutions to problems.”

The paper attracted the attention of scientists working at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the military office that was experimenting in long-distance links among computers. Through the organization’s Information Processing Techniques Office, Engelbart received funding to explore his ideas. He launched the Augmentation Research Center (ARC), which later became the Network Information Center for the ARPAnet,the forerunner of the Internet.

“It was like the Wild West,” said Bill Duvall, who joined ARC in 1968 for years of 80- to 100-hour work weeks. Duvall had been programming in the SRI lab next door to Engelbart’s and got excited after dropping by to see what he was up to. “If you got it, there was a whole world waiting to be explored,” he said of Engelbart’s vision. “It was an interesting door to walk through.”

Duvall said that when Engelbart brought people in for job interviews, he’d hand them a pencil with a brick attached to it with masking tape and then ask them to write their name. The point was to demonstrate that if our writing tools were that unwieldy, we would never have learned to write.

Duvall’s wife, Ann, joined ARC in the mid-1970s to help write training materials for the lab’s NLS (oNLine System), which Engelbart developed to integrate his concepts, including the mouse, windows, hypermedia and groupware. Engelbart had a vision, “and everybody who worked for him became touched by that vision,” she said.

Caught up in a vision

In fact, Engelbart’s influence in the industry can be measured by the many people,such as Bill Duvall, Jeff Rulifson and Bill English, manager of many of the experiments launched by Engelbart,who went through his lab and later went on to research centers such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) or companies such as Sun Microsystems, or founded their own companies. “All those places have pieces of Doug in them,” Ann Duvall said.

Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie read scientific papers in the 1980s that referred to Engelbart’s work with Tymshare, the company that bought the commercial rights to NLS in the late 1970s. Ozzie said he didn’t read Engelbart’s work before creating the first version of Notes in 1989, yet the papers and journals he read for his work were filled with concepts derived from Engelbart’s work, which he calls “fundamental” to the industry.

“The mouse, graphical editing and windowing, object addressing and linking,and thus hypermedia,outline processing, version control, teleconferencing and remote meetings, distributed client/server computing and many other things that are quite common today are direct descendants of work that he pioneered,” Ozzie said.

Aside from the patent on the mouse, Engelbart holds more than 20 patents, including 19 on work he did from the mid- to late 1950s on plasma digital devices and magnetic digital devices.

Even his daughter, Christina, became caught up in her father’s vision. While still a child, she would sit with friends on the family’s front stoop in Palo Alto on summer nights to hear her father tell science-fiction stories. As an adult, she worked with her father at Tymshare and later helped him set up the Bootstrap Institute, a think tank he now runs in Fremont, Calif. He had “a very big idea,” she said, explaining that her father’s vision has never been about technology for technology’s sake.

Now 76, Engelbart is being showered with recognition. In 1997, he received the Lemelson-MIT Prize, which celebrates excellence in creativity, invention and innovation. The award, along with a check for $500,000, was presented to him at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington. And last year, he received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

The information age is in the midst of an “unfinished revolution,” Engelbart said. The computer industry appears to regard office automation as the be-all and end-all of technological innovation, and that falls far short of its promise, he said. If technological innovation were Mount Everest, we’ve only climbed about 3,000 feet up the 29,000-foot mountain, he said.

“My picture of where we can get is so far beyond where the World Wide Web has gotten us,” he said.

Today, Engelbart drives daily from his home in Atherton across the Dumbarton Bridge over San Francisco Bay to offices that were donated to him by Logitech, the mouse company. He said he doesn’t mind his rush-hour commute because he heads in the opposite direction from everyone else. For Douglas Engelbart, some things never change.

Douglas Engelbart Profile

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