PALO ALTO, Calif.--Forty years ago this week, Doug Engelbart and fellow researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) gave a demonstration in San Francisco that was a prescient vision of the future: it included a computer mouse, hypertext linking, real-time on-screen text editing, shared-screen teleconferencing, and other revolutionary ideas.
Here, a large crowd fills Memorial Auditorium at Stanford University Tuesday to watch a video of the historic demo and hear original team members recount their groundbreaking work.
Engelbart kicked off the 1968 demo by asking: "If in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly...responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that? Well this basically characterizes what we've been pursuing for many years in what we call the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at Stanford Research Institute."
In the demo, Engelbart's keyboard is flanked by a mouse and a "keyset" that could input characters. For example, the left hand might type out DW for "delete word" on the command line using the keyset or the keyboard. The right hand would direct the mouse to the word to be deleted. Clicking once on the mouse button selected the word by putting an arrow under it; a second click executed the delete command.
Sproull interviews members of Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center
Bob Sproull, far left, a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s, interviews members of Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center. From left to right: Sproull, Don Andrews, Bill English, Bill Paxton, Jeff Rulifson, and Andries van Dam.
Famed computer researcher Alan Kay spoke at the event about the impact of Engelbart's work, but noted that computers and the Internet have a long way to go to fully realize the dream of fundamentally changing how humans think and learn. While at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s, Kay and fellow researchers developed the Smalltalk programming language and other advances that made their way into Apple's groundbreaking Lisa and Macintosh computers.
Tom Hagan, right, shows Engelbart (with granddaughter Emily Mangan) what Hagan described as the first commercial mouse. The mouse was built around 1970 by Computer Displays Inc., which Hagan's company later acquired.
Engelbart and his old friend. While the mouse may be the most recognizable product of his 1968 demo, it represented just one small element in Engelbart's vision of creating tools and processes for augmenting human knowledge through networked computers.
Bob Taylor conceived and initiated a project called ARPAnet for networking distant computers, a forerunner of the Internet. At Tuesday's event he recounted that in the 1960s, each computer had one terminal and its own language. "An idiot could see that this is silly," he recalled thinking, so he proposed one terminal that could access many computers via networking. Many were "skeptical," he said, but not Engelbart.
Taylor recalls a story he heard from Engelbart: prior to the 1968 demo, a government contracting officer, concerned about expenses, tried to distance himself from the event. "If this thing comes off, I'm going to deny ever knowing anything about it," the officer told Engelbart.
Alan Kay explains that Engelbart's vision in the 1960s was to use computers to unleash the power to accelerate, or augment, human knowledge. Alas, he said, the "commercial explosion has almost completely trumped" the ideals of those early days.
Engelbart closed his 1968 demo by thanking his 17-person team, for "backing me all these years in this wild dream of doing this sort of thing and they're all catching fire and I want to just tell them all right now that I owe them a lot." Forty years later, they thanked him back.
A humble Engelbart, with wife Karen (Wikipedia says he remarried in 2008), was clearly moved and appreciative of the accolades he received. Forty years earlier, in closing his demo, he said: "A very final credit goes to my wife and daughters who are out here to whom I'd like to dedicate this whole presentation because of what they've put up with over these years, with a husband that (is) dedicated in a monomaniacal way to something that is very wild."