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In One 1968 Presentation, This Inventor Shaped Modern Computing

Douglas Engelbart’s career was about seeing the possibilities of what computing could do for humanity

Douglas Engelbart rehearsing for his 1968 computer demo. (SRI/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

To modern eyes, it’s hokey as heck.

In the blurry black-and-white image, Douglas Engelbart, in his early 40s, wears a wired headset and speaks — mostly — to the camera before him. His eyes stray to the audience in the 2000-seat auditorium around him, although his image is also being projected onto a screen they’re all watching.  

“I hope you’ll go along with this rather unusual setting,” he says, glancing up at his face on the big screen and smiling.

But for tech inventor Douglas Engelbart, born on this day in 1925, the presentation geared for “intellectual workers” that came to be known as “the mother of all demos” was an important moment in a career that helped define how we use computers today.

Among other things, Engelbart invented the computer mouse, which was patented under his name. But his peers say his biggest contribution was imagining a future of computing that was collaborative and where the power of computers enhanced the abilities of humans, wrote Mike Cassidy for The Mercury News in Engelbart’s 2013 obituary.

“He clearly saw the heartbeat behind the ones and zeros of the digital age,” Cassidy wrote. “He believed that computers, which were primarily for crunching numbers and spitting out answers when he started his work, had the ability to empower people and enhance their intellect in ways that would improve lives.”

This vision shows up in his presentation, which took place in San Francisco in December 1968. In the giant demo he not only demonstrated a cube-shaped computer mouse, he also described “online collaboration, real-time text editing and the use of hypertext links — all incorporated into one computer system, and all 16 years before the first Apple Macintosh was unleashed,” writes Cassidy.

At the time, to his audience,  the vision was as mind-blowing as it seems in retrospect. One member of that audience told Cassidy, “Doug was tripping on technology and we in the audience also were.”

In the presentation, Engelbart both pictured and helped to shape the future of computers and how humanity could benefit from their use. It was a watershed moment in a career spent working on these questions, writes Cyrus Farivar for Ars Technica.

In 1962, six years before his groundbreaking demo, Engelbart envisioned the future in “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” In that paper he described a “writing machine” that sounds a lot like one of today’s word processors, among other things. 

This writing machine would permit you to use a new process of composing text. For instance, trial drafts could rapidly be composed from re-arranged excerpts of old drafts, together with new words or passages which you stop to type in. Your first draft could represent a free outpouring of thoughts in any order, with the inspection of foregoing thoughts continuously stimulating new considerations and ideas to be entered. If the tangle of thoughts represented by the draft became too complex, you would compile a reordered draft quickly. It would be practical for you to accommodate more complexity in the trails of thought you might build in search of the path that suits your needs.

You can integrate your new ideas more easily, and thus harness your creativity more continuously, if you can quickly and flexibly change your working record.

His insights shaped the ideas behind computers, but you have to wonder what he would have thought of, say, Doom.

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