This week saw the passing of Doug Engelbart, one of the giants in the history of computing. Today he is mostly known for his invention of the computer mouse in 1963. Many of his other big ideas lay waiting in the wings of the stage of computer science until the world caught up with him.
A few people come along who consciously examine how they will make a difference in the world and set out to do so. Engelbert belongs to the grand tradition of seeing problems and applying his prodigious talents toward solving them. He didn’t know which ones to tackle until he read Vannevar Bush’s 1945 paper As we may think and found his calling.
This paper, together with Engelbart’s experience in the Navy in the second world war, working with information on radar screens, gave him the three key components: people, information, and how it can be represented and manipulated.
His most famous performance, one of the halcyon moments in computing, became known as “The Mother of all Demos”. In San Francisco in 1968 Doug Engelbart demonstrated his work before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, which you can watch below.
At his Augmentation Research Centre at the Stanford Research Institute in California he had been developing a revolutionary approach to computer-augmented collaborative work, using what were then massive amounts of computing power.
In one carefully-scripted presentation Engelbart showed a working networked interactive computing system. The work which he presented included the mouse controlling a computer, multiple windows, video teleconferencing with shared screens, hypertext and more. The audience was stunned, as if they had just seen the future – which, of course, they had.
From the viewpoint of 2013, such developments don’t sound very Earth-trembling. But in 1968 they were tectonic. People who were fortunate enough to be present recall moments of epiphany that changed forever the way they thought about the relation between humans and computers.
The world that was
Some background is necessary. In 1968 computers were principally number-crunching machines, working in batch mode to process individual tasks. The input was punched cards, tediously typed and submitted for processing.
The output was printed on fan-fold paper and there was no direct interaction with the computer via keyboard or screen.
Many of us took stumbling steps in computing, quite a few years later, following this painful sequence, with the machine methodically training us to properly execute the programming language Fortran.
Engelbart changed all that. His approach was not to solve individual engineering problems, but to find ways of realising his big picture, something which he devoted his whole working life to: enhancing human potential by inventing ways of thinking about, and realising, richer human-computer interaction.
That’s what made him special. He was a visionary inventor and engineer, a top-down changer of worlds. He had a devastatingly simple aim: to make the world a better place by augmenting the human intellect to better take on the problems the world presented. So he invented the components which underly all modern human-computer interaction.
His work was purposeful and driven by this aim. And that focus distinguishes his work from so many of the advances in computing over the past half-century which have been driven by serendipity and affordances.
Serendipity is fortunate chance: the happy bursting forth of unexpected ideas in an unplanned way; and affordances involve the discovery of uses for things which weren’t part of the original design.
The internet was originally a robust military command network, far from the social network it has become. Facebook was not designed as an educational tool.
Engelbart’s approach, in contrast, was teleological: to make the technology such that people would find new ways of thinking about and manipulating information.
The impact of his work can be appreciated in a growing online archive, the motto of which is: “Boosting mankind’s capability for coping with complex, urgent problems”. No hubris; just brilliance.
Now that’s a legacy to treasure.