On this day, January 30th, 1925, Douglas Engelbart, pioneer of the personal computer, developer of the NLS computer system and inventor of the computer mouse, was born.
An obscure figure
Not many people will be wishing the late Douglas Engelbart a happy birthday today. Overshadowed by the giants who popularized personal computing, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak, Engelbart may just be the most important computer scientist that nobody has ever heard of, and a fundamental force behind the modern personal computer.
When to most people computers were boxes of 1s and 0s that did nothing but crunch numbers, Engelbart foresaw the potential for computers to become a force to focus mankind’s intellect, which would bring the body of human knowledge together in a way that would revolutionize the world.
Thinking beyond even the most forward in his field, Engelbart saw the future of computing in networked computers, anticipating the advent of the Internet.
At a famous demonstration in the 1960s, Engelbart showcased a computer system that had all the trappings of a modern PC. But his influence over the development of computers slowly faded into obscurity, and he is now remembered best for one of his many brilliant inventions: the mouse.
Born on January 30th of 1925, Engelbart grew up in a world shaken by war, brimming with thinkers, and developing technologies. It was a time ripe for the seeds of new ideas – but the real thrust for Engelbart’s career did not come until the second great war. While he was serving as a radar technician in the Phillipines during World War II, Engelbart sat down in a library and read Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’. The article described a prototype of hypertext: the memex. The memex was a hypothetical device that could store information; people’s books, records, and communications, where they could all be easily stored and accessed. This shockingly anticipatory piece had been written in 1945.
In the article, Bush poured out his war-driven fear: that science was being used as a force for destruction instead of understanding.
Engelbart went back to Oregon State college, and received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1948. After graduation, he met Ballard Fish, whom he married in 1951.
The hero’s journey
Engelbart soon hit a crisis: he realized that despite his stable job, he didn’t have any career plans or ambitions for the future, other than to live a happily married, and financially stable life.
In the next few months, he developed a simple philosophy for his future: he would devote his career to making the world a better place.
Needless to say, the way Engelbart chose to do it was with computers.
In 1956, he accepted a position at the Standford Research Institute (SRI), where he founded a research team called the Augmentation Research Center (ARC). ARC became the driving force behind Engelbart’s most lasting legacies.
The mother of all demos
To his peers, Engelbart was quixotic and embarrassing. Many computer scientists chose to distance themselves from him, and his ridiculously ambitious ideas. But everybody stopped laughing on December 9th of 1968 at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, when Engelbart delivered what would come to be known as the mother of all demos.
He called it ‘A research center for augmenting human intellect’. Here, Engelbart introduced what he had been developing at the ARC: the oN-Line System, or NLS. This computer system boasted all the commodities associated with modern computers. With a mouse, keyboard, graphical user interface, text editor, resizable windows, and a modem connected to ARC’s computer in Menlo Park for desktop sharing and video conferencing, it was a PC in the 1960s.
The NLS was a prototype for modern computing, and influenced great computer companies to follow, such as Xerox, Microsoft and Apple.
Along with all the technology he showcased at the mother of all demos, Engelbart used a computer mouse, something he had invented five years earlier in 1964.
While the version he used at the demo was nicely polished, it was a far cry from the first, pine wood prototype developed by William English, a member of ARC.
It’s not hard to recognize a mouse, and the concept has not changed much: then, and now, it is simply a device that reads two dimensional movement, and translates it into corresponding x/y dimensions on a digital display.
Three buttons were put into early versions of the mouse, because at the time, nothing more would fit. Engelbart thought that up to ten buttons would be useful, and CEO of Apple Steve Jobs later tried to reduce the number to one. But three was apparently the magic number, and lives on to this day.
According to Engelbart, the word ‘mouse’ was chosen for the device, because the wire connecting it to a computer resembled a rodent’s tail. Apparently, researchers at ARC also called the on-screen cursor a ‘bug’; but the former lived on, while the latter fell out of usage.
Engelbart died of kidney failure on July 2, 2013
It was a rare chance to watch the dawn of the digital era, the rise of the personal computer, and the advent of the Internet. But it is an even rarer thing to influence it, and make it happen.
Engelbart lived to see his ideas, once thought to be eccentric and crazy, become a reality. And while the rest of the world remembers him only dimly for his contribution of the computer mouse, his dream to improve the world lingers in all the corners of the modern age, and drives us to remember that the world we live in today was dreamed up by people who lived half a century ago.