Imagine 1960. John F. Kennedy is on the campaign trail while the war in Vietnam escalates. Timothy Leary begins his exploration of hallucinogens. The Pill ignites the Sexual Revolution. Yuri Gagarin will soon be the first man in space. Daily life, on the other hand, is more difficult to picture. No personal computers, let alone tablets and smartphones. No internet. Without the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, most of us wouldn’t even call it life.
Now, think about living in 1960 and prefiguring today. Challenging? Well, Douglas Engelbart did exactly that. Engelbart had a vision of the future in which digital technology augmented human intelligence. In achieving his dream he created the world that we now take for granted.
In 1961, Engelbart was sitting at a boring lecture on computer graphics. His mind wandered. It struck him that interactive computing required a better way of moving a cursor on the screen. Engelbart drew out a notebook and sketched an idea. It was based on the planimeter used by engineers and geographers to measure areas on maps and other documents. Engelbart had designed the first computer mouse.
The featured image is a prototype of Engelbart’s mouse, built with the help of Bill English in 1964. The photo is used courtesy of SRI International – SRI International, CC BY-SA 3.0.
On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave a 90-minute demonstration at a computer conference in San Francisco. It was soon dubbed “The Mother of All Demos”. Highlights included hypertext, dynamic file linking, windows, graphics and, of course, the mouse. Engelbart showed the audience a complete hardware and software system. The system was part of a network. During the presentation, Engelbart edited text in collaboration with colleagues working remotely, in Stanford. A screen displayed Engelbart, his computer’s output and his associates in Stanford. The audience was astounded. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. They gave Engelbart a standing ovation.
Development of the mouse was slow and adoption even more so. The “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System” was first presented to the world in 1968. The patent was awarded in 1970. A digital mouse followed in 1972, designed by Jack Hawley and Bill English for Xerox. The commercial mouse only came along in 1981, twenty years after Engelbart pulled out his notebook. One version was part of the Xerox Star computer system. That failed due to its US$ 16,000 price tag — more than US$ 40,000 today. In the same year, Apple brought consumers the first affordable mouse.
“The Mother of All Demos” stemmed from Engelbart’s life long mission, articulated in a 1962 document, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”. In it, he illustrates his ideas by describing an architect at work. Go read it, you will be stunned. It’s hard to believe that Engelbart didn’t have a time machine. His prescience borders on the supernatural.
Douglas Engelbart passed away in 2013. He’s certainly less well known than the Beatles or John F. Kennedy. Yet, he impacts all of our lives every day. Remember him next time you click your mouse.
For more information, visit the Doug Engelbart Institute.