Douglas Engelbart

Alex Duner
Dec 9, 2013 · 12 min read

“The least important question you can ask about Engelbart is, ‘What did he build?’…The most important question you can ask about Engelbart is, ‘What world was he trying to create?’”Bret Victor

On December 9, 1968—exactly forty five years ago—at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco Doug Engelbart presented a revolutionary vision for what computers could be. Speaking in front of an audience of more than one thousand computer scientists Engelbart gave what has since been dubbed “The Mother of All Demos.”

In his book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer John Markoff argues that Engelbart demoed “every significant aspect of today’s computing world…in a magnificent hour and a half.” On a twenty two foot display behind him, Engelbart amazed his audience with multiple windows, shared-screen teleconferencing, text editing, links between documents, mixing video and graphics, and the use of a weird new pointing device he called a mouse. Markoff writes that it was “like science fiction to a data-processing world reared on punch cards and typewriter terminals.”

When looking at Engelbart’s life it would be folly to focus on any of the individual inventions. Bret Victor writes that doing so would be “as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil.”

This is the story of his vision and crusade to “augment human intellect.”


Douglas Engelbart was born on January 30, 1925 in Portland, Oregon. His father, an electrical engineer, died when Engelbart was nine years old. He was bright and attended Oregon State College where he studied to become a radar technician until he was drafted into the U.S. Navy.

While stationed on a small Pacific island, Engelbart read Vannevar Bush’s seminal article As We May Think which was published in The Atlantic in 1945. Engelbart learned the power that machines could have reading Bush’s charge that:

For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.

Vannevar Bush’s Memex Machine

Engelbart returned from the war and completed a B.S. in electrical engineering at Oregon State University in 1948. He began working at an NACA laboratory—the precursor to NASA—in Mountain View, California.

In December 1951, however, Engelbart got engaged and began to reevaluate his life’s purpose. While driving to work one day he came to the realization that he had no professional goals. He spent the next few months trying to determine what cause he could devote his life to that would have a positive impact on the world. All of the ideas he came up with were riddled with complexity and would be extremely difficult to accomplish.

In a series of interviews that were published Engelbart recalls:

Then one day, it just dawned on me—BOOM—that complexity was the fundamental thing. Solving any significant problem would also be a complex thing. And it just went “click.” If in some way, you could contribute to the the way humans could handle complexity and urgency, that would be universally helpful.

Engelbart realized that computers—a very new technology at the time—could be crucial to make this dream come true, even though he “literally at that time didn’t know how the computer worked.” He drew on his experience as a radar technician and imagined a world where people might sit in front of screens pointing at images and text all while collaborating with one another. He decided to go back to graduate school to learn how to leverage computers to make his vision a reality.

While at Berkley—where he eventually received his Ph. D in 1955—Engelbart’s vision was met with scorn and mocking. Markoff explains that his vision:

Ran directly counter to the precepts of the mainstream of the computing business. The era was dominated by a belief that artificial intelligence was at hand and would soon create a world populated by thinning machines.

His idea that computers could be used to augment human intelligence was considered quaint, crazy, and mundane. Realizing that he would be unable to advance his crusade further at Berkley, Engelbart left in search of somewhere where he could work his dreams. None of the companies in the Valley were interested in letting a young inexperienced engineer work on his own research. So in 1957, Engelbart joined the Stanford Research Institute.

Even at the SRI Engelbart was initially unable to work on advancing his crusade.

Howard Rheingold tells the story that when Engelbart was interviewing for the position he told his interviewer about his vision. The man responded, “don’t tell anybody else. It will sound too crazy. It will prejudice people against you.”

Over the course of the following two years, Engelbart worked with people like Hewitt Crane on a variety of projects related to magnetic computer components and the miniaturization of components. He came to the conclusion that the scaling of components could result in dramatic and constant increases in computing power six years before Roger Moore became famous for making the same prediction.

For Engelbart, however, the concept of scaling did not apply only to computational power, but to the power of collaboration and information. Increasing the scale of collaboration between people would create exponential increases in the power of human thought and capability.

Don’t tell anybody else. It will sound too crazy. It will prejudice people against you.

The insight about scaling was the proof that Engelbart needed to charge ahead on his crusade. Through persistence, Engelbart was eventually given a small amount of funding from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to work on his own research. He established the Augmentation Research Center—a lab at SRI—and in October 1962 published his seminal work, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” He wrote:

The computer has many other capabilities for manipulating and displaying information that can be of significant benefit to the human in nonmathematical processes of planning, organizing, studying, etc. Every person who does his thinking with symbolized concepts (whether in the form of the English language, pictographs, formal logic, or mathematics) should be able to benefit significantly.

He envisioned a “writing machine” that would enable “a new process of composing text” and wrote about “associative-linking.” It was a revolutionary vision of computing; in one fell swoop he showed the world an early vision of personal computing and of the Internet.

The paper drew the attention of J. C. R. Licklider, the head of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Licklider was one of the few people who understood the ideas that Engelbart was talking about. Unlike Engelbart, Licklider believed in artificial intelligence as the path to what he called “man-computer symbiosis.” They both believed that in the short-term humans would have to work with computers; however, unlike Engelbart, Licklider ultimately believed in “conceding dominance in the distant future of cerebration to machines alone.” After reading Engelbart’s paper, he decided to provide some additional government funding to the Augmentation Research Center.

Working at the Augmentation Research Center / Stanford

Engelbart began to assemble a team to work on building his vision. The project was known as the oN-Line System, or NLS. The team consisted not only of engineers and programmers but also of designers and even a psychologist. By 1968 there were seventeen people working on the project. Howard Rheingold commented:

Perhaps the Augmentation Research Center’s greatest effect on computer culture for generations to come was in the succession of remarkable people who passed through that laboratory and on to other notable research projects.

Part of what made the Augmentation Research Center’s work unique was the way in which it was conducted. Engelbart used an approach he called bootstrapping. This approach, he explains, relied on his earlier ideas about the power of scaling:

Each time a change is made, or a problem is solved, it leads to a completely new state of the situation. What is needed is a strategy that allows for continual reevaluation of the problem at every stage, so that a new strategy can be created. This applies both to human systems [social relationships, culture, politics] and tool systems [technologies]. As a result of issues of scale, it is imperative that human and tool systems must co-evolve.

Through constant iteration and the coevolution of programmer and program the NLS team made a series of staggering innovations. One of the most important was a way for humans to point at a screen: the mouse.

Douglas Engelbart and Bill English’s Mouse / Engelbart Institute

Engelbart was inspired by the planimeter, an engineering principle first conceived in 1814 and first constructed in 1851. He gave a sketch of the idea to Bill English, the Chief Engineer on the NLS project, who constructed the first mouse. It used two wheels that were connected to two potentiometers in order to determine where on the screen the cursor should be placed.

In his book Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing Thierry Bardini explains that the mouse was designed to work in concert with the keyboard; the user could alternate between inputting text and graphics without having to constantly look down at his or her hands. In 1970 Engelbart would be awarded the patent for an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.”

Though initially the mouse only had one button, later versions had up to three. This disappointed Engelbart. John Markoff notes that Enegelbart was “passionate about the need for a complex control device…once the user mastered the contraption it would give him far more power over the system.” One of the many ways that Engelbart’s vision has not come to pass is that the modern computer industry put a premium on intuitiveness and ease of use, at the expense of more powerful capabilities. Modern mice have one or two buttons to make it simpler. Engelbart put only three on his mouse because he couldn’t fit any more on the device.

The first one-button mouse / Engelbart Institute

And though Engelbart is most well known for inventing the mouse—The New York Times ran the headline “Douglas C. Engelbart, Inventor of the Computer Mouse, Dies at 88” when he died—he commented “the mouse was just a tiny piece of a much larger project at augmenting human intellect.” In addition to the mouse, NLS was the first system to use windows, hypertext, shared-screen teleconferencing, and word processing. In The Engelbart Hypothesis he reflects that everything about the system was purposeful and designed with the intent of augmentation.

The fundamental principle used in building sophisticated capabilities from the basic capabilities is structuring–the special type of structuring (which we have termed synergetic) in which the organization of a group of elements produces an effect greater than the mere addition of their individual effects…We are developing a growing awareness of the significant and pervasive nature of such structure within every physical and conceptual thing we inspect, where the hierarchical form seems almost universally present as stemming from successive levels of such organization.

One of the most powerful feature that NLS had was text editing. Users could create files, fill them with text, retrieve them, and link them together. The mouse indicated where new text would be inserted. You could save a file and work on it later. “It is almost shocking to realize that in 1968 it was a novel experience to see someone use a computer to put words on a screen” notes Howard Rheingold. Even more, multiple people could collaborate on the same document. NLS used a powerful concept called Journals that enabled a group of people to collaborate on a body of work. Academics could use links to jump between an article and a different article it cited, “reducing to seconds or minutes procedures that would take hours or months in even the most efficient library/journal system.”

It was a powerful new way of sharing information.

Screensharing from The Mother of All Demos

In 1968 Engelbart showed off NLS in what is known as The Mother of All Demos. Using “state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment,” the audience was wowed with as members of the team appeared on stage, working with Engelbart to edit documents and link them together. This description is quite captivating:

Engelbart was the very image of a test pilot for a new kind of vehicle that doesn’t fly over geographical territory but through what was heretofore an abstraction that computer scientists call “information space”…In Doug’s words, all of our old habits of organizing information are “blasted open” by exposure to a system modeled, not on pencils and printing presses, but on the way the human mind processes information.

Despite the reaction to the demo it would take until the late 1980s before the mouse and keyboard became the accepted way to interact with computers.

Four Node Diagram of the ARAPANT. Note that node #2 in the top middle was for SRI.

In 1969, the Augmentation Research Center would play an important role in the development of the Internet. ARC would become one of the first nodes in the ARPAnet, one of the first systems connecting networks using TCP/IP.

The NLS network was connected to networks at Berkley, MIT, and the University of Utah. Engelbart thought that this would be the perfect way to spread his ideas about augmenting human capabilities and get more people using his revolutionary system.

There were a few factors, however, that prevented this from happening.

First, NLS was too challenging to use and failed to find an audience outside of the Stanford Research Institute. According to Thierry Bardini, the system was not intuitive and “required training and significant personal commitment.” Additionally, the extremely structured nature of the system made it difficult for others to use. People who had not coevolved with the development system were not able to grasp its functionality.

Second, the ARPAnet didn’t have enough bandwidth for many people to use NLS at the same time. Alan Kay commented:

The destiny of Engelbart’s system was not to run on time sharing, because when you got a reasonable number of users on it you started to get killed by response time problems and other things, and what’s great about the tool goes away…NLS never recovered.

The last factor that prevented widespread adoption of NLS was brain drain away from the Augmentation Research Center. Many of the key players in the development of the oN-Line System left the project by the early 1970s. Some who were opposed to the Vietnam War were uncomfortable with the ties the project had to the military. But many were simply ready to move on to other projects or had different visions for computing. In 1971, Bill English—the inventor of the mouse—left for Xerox PARC along with many other members of the NLS team. In 1977, SRI sold NLS to Tymshare Inc. and Engelbart faded into relative obscurity.

At Xerox PARC many of the technologies that Engelbart had invented were used to create a different world than the one he had imagined. The devices that were influenced by the work done at Xerox PARC appealed to a broader range of users. They were dumbed down and less powerful. Engelbart explained “they take parts of the architecture, they take the mouse, they take the idea of windows, all of that, but the rest of NLS they rejected.”

One of the fundamental changes that the team at Xerox PARC made to Engelbart’s vision for computing was to emphasize ease of use. The user-interface should be designed to facilitate how actual people would use it instead of forcing the user to learn how to work in a better way. Interfaces were designed to mimic real-world objects to create an illusion that made it easier to use. According to Bardini, researches at PARC abandoned what defined Engelbart’s vision of bootstrapping because it:

…forces a certain myopia on you. Since you don’t have users who have different viewpoints, different needs, coming in and criticizing what you’ve done, you just don’t broaden it. As long as it’s meeting your needs, as the bootstrap community, it’s very hard to push it out.

In some sense, this explains why Engelbart’s crusade is considered unfinished. When Steve Jobs famously used the ideas and technologies that were coming out of Xerox PARC to create the Macintosh, he was drawing on a completely different vision of computing than Engelbart had imagined. Even though many of the technologies were the same, the ideas behind them were different. For all of the resemblance between a modern computer and NLS, “our present-day systems do not embody Engelbart’s intent.”

In 1997 he received the Lemelson-MIT Prize and in 2000 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the highest award for technological achievement in the United States. Until his death in July 2013, Engelbart continued to advocate his lifelong vision. He founded the Bootstrap Institute in 1989 and was optimistic about the World Wide Web’s ability to improve our Collective IQ.

Douglas Engelbart was ahead of his time. The vision he had for computers and society was constantly scorned, even as it worked its way into every aspect of modern life. Engelbart was one of the first people to recognize what a powerful tool computers could be and his ideas were a fundamental part of the creation of both the personal computer and the Internet.

    Alex Duner

    Written by

    Journalist and developer.

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