Imagine someone demonstrating a jet plane 15 years before Kitty Hawk. Imagine someone demonstrating a smartphone 15 years before the first cellular networks were even launched. Imagine someone demonstrating a controlled nuclear chain reaction 15 years before Einstein formulated e=mc2.

On a crisp, overcast, and breezy Monday afternoon in San Francisco on December 9, 1968, before an SRO audience of more than 2,000 slack-jawed computer engineers, a soft-spoken engineer named Douglas Engelbart held the first public demonstration of word processing, point-and-clicking, dragging-and-dropping, hypermedia and hyperlinking, cross-file editing, idea/outline processing, collaborative groupware, text messaging, onscreen real-time video teleconferencing, and a weird little device dubbed a “mouse” — the essentials of a graphical user interface (GUI) 15 years before the first personal computers went on sale.

But the presentation was more than seemingly disparate demonstrations of experimental computer operations. What Engelbart and his team had created from scratch was a holistic system designed to extend human communications capabilities, tools to augment human intellect — hence the presentation’s official prosaic academic title, “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect.” Engelbart’s presentation would later be more appropriately dubbed “The Mother of All Demos.” 

What made Engelbart’s rather dry (in retrospect) presentation so jaw-dropping and vastly influential was that in 1968, computers were industrial and room-sized, could be operated by just one user at a time, were used primarily for number-crunching à la Hidden Figures, generally didn’t include CRT displays, and were rarely seen in the real world. The unified and collaborative concepts and functions Engelbart calmly demonstrated seemed as futuristic as Star Trek (at the time in the midst of its first run on NBC), except he and his team had brought them to real life. Computer scientist Alan Kay, who defied a case of the flu to fly in from L.A. to attend, said the Demo was “like Moses parting the Red Sea.”

The Demo wasn’t just a momentary flash of brilliance. It is the Magna Carta, the Rosetta Stone, the Declaration of Independence of personal computing.

The Demo wasn’t just a momentary flash of brilliance. It is the Magna Carta, the Rosetta Stone, the Declaration of Independence of personal computing. It has inspired, ignited, and influenced the development of every piece of personal-computing software and hardware since. The overarching philosophical functionality of everything we do on a PC, tablet, or smartphone dates back to Engelbart and the Demo.

This Sunday, the Demo’s 50th anniversary, Engelbart’s daughter Christina will lead a day-long TheDEMO@50, the Engelbart Symposium at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, “exploring the past, present, and future of Engelbart’s profound legacy.” Presenters will include web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, internet pioneer Vint Cerf, along with other computer and internet luminaries, as well as original members of Engelbart’s team. Next Wednesday, December 12, at 6 p.m., there’ll be a Solving Today’s Great Problems? Lessons from Engelbart’s Demo @50 conference, also at the CHM. Both events will be live-streamed. There are also commemorative scheduled in England and Japan.

Aside from the pure audacity of the concepts presented at The Demo, Engelbart’s entire conceptual development approach is unique in the history of innovation. Most engineers start with a technical challenge to solve, with functionality and consequences secondary, sometimes accidental, considerations. But Engelbart started from the opposite direction. He studied how we think, how we work, and how we collaborate, then envisioned and created the hardware, software and programming systems necessary to enhance the collective IQ. 

Many enormous achievements spring from the innocuous. For Engelbart, the spark for his life’s work was a magazine article he read on an isolated island in the South Pacific 23 years earlier. 

‘As We May Think’

Engelbart was the middle child of three, born in Portland, Oregon, on January 30, 1925. After the death of his father in the mid-1930s, the family moved to the small neighboring town of Johnson Creek. He graduated from Portland’s Franklin High School in 1942 and attended Oregon State University (then known as Oregon State College) in Corvallis for a year when he was drafted. He joined the Navy and became a radar technician.

Douglas C. Engelbart in 1968.

Douglas C. Engelbart in 1968.

In September 1945, Engelbart found himself sitting in a Red Cross library – actually, a hut built on stilts – on the Philippine island of Leyte. “It was quiet and cool and airy inside, with lots of polished bamboo and books,” Engelbart later recalled. Engelbart was entranced by an article in Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush, the founder of what would become Raytheon, then science advisor to the President, the man who talked Franklin Roosevelt into initiating the Manhattan Project. The article was titled “As We May Think,” and it explored how machines had and would aid human intellect. In the article, Bush described an automated collective memory machine dubbed memex, “a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility… an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.” Bush’s combined human/technological concepts would haunt and then inspire Engelbart.

After the war, Engelbart returned to Oregon State and earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering in 1948. His first job out of college was at the Ames Research Center, run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA, in Mountain View, when what would become Silicon Valley was still filled with orchards.

In 1951, Engelbart got engaged, which ignited thoughts about his life’s direction and career goals. “He had an epiphany,” his daughter details. “He started measuring how many minutes he had left in his career, and figured he had five million minutes he would have to invest. He decided in that moment to maximize the effect of his career toward the betterment of mankind, and how tools could support that goal.”

Engelbart’s radar-screen-watching experience merged with Bush’s ideas of how tools could aid human intellect, and he envisioned people sitting in front of display workstations “flying around” in a computerized information space. 

To pursue his vision, Engelbart quit his job at NACA and returned to school, earning his master’s in 1953 and a Ph.D. in 1955, both in electrical engineering with a specialty in computers from the University of California at Berkeley. He stayed on at Berkeley as an acting assistant professor, but his ideas pushed him to a more suitable position at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI, now SRI International) in 1957.

A prototype of Engelbart's first computer mouse.

A prototype of Engelbart’s first computer mouse.

“He spent two years studying a new field, ‘augmenting the human intellect’ — language, tools, methodology, organizational transformation, organizational strategy,” Christina explains. “He studied each thread to develop a common framework, regardless of the vertical discipline.” 

Engelbart’s studies resulted in a seminal October 1962 paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” that described “a new and systematic approach to improving the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being. A detailed conceptual framework explores the nature of the system composed of the individual and the tools concepts and methods that match his basic capabilities to his problems.” 

Prominent among these tools was the computer.

At SRI, Engelbart established an Augmentation Research Center (ARC) lab, and built a team of young engineers that he guided, but didn’t command. “If someone had an idea and his idea wasn’t the best and he understood the difference, he’d jump on the other idea and apologize for not grasping it sooner,” his daughter says. “He didn’t have ego involvement — it was never ‘my way to the highway.’ He’d stick with the discussion until he could understand the disconnect. He was committed to find a win-win solution.” Employing this low-key collaborative style, Engelbart and his team began to develop computers, software, and programming to transform his visions into physical digital reality.

One of these technologies was hypermedia, the linking of one piece of digitized data to another, developed independently but simultaneously in 1964 with East Coast-based Ted Nelson, who actually coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia.”

But hypermedia was just one part of a larger integrated system. The foundation of Engelbart’s system was the NLS (oN-Line System). Developed in 1963-64, the NLS was one of the first computers to offer what was called “two-dimensional editing,” direct editing of text, with human-first console and desk ergonomics developed by Jack Kelley of Herman Miller Research (yes, the chair people). Then, in late 1967, Engelbart acquired the first time-sharing computer, the Scientific Data System SDS940 mainframe that enabled his entire team to work on the systems they were building from separate workstations.

To help navigate the NLS, Engelbart started to experiment with “screen selection” devices — pointers to navigate information presented on the NLS display — including a light pen, a foot pedal, a knee apparatus, even a helmet-mounted device. Engelbart finally came up with a pointing device that would physically traverse a desktop on two small wheels, one turning horizontally, one vertically, each transmitting rotation coordinates to determine the location of a floating onscreen pointer he called a “bug.” In 1963, ARC lead engineer Bill English built one of these rolling pointers from Engelbart’s sketches. Encased in a carved-out wooden block with perpendicular wheels mounted in its underbelly, it had only one red-tipped button – that was all there was room for. Someone lost to history started calling it “the mouse.” Engelbart and his crew experimented with additional buttons, working all the way up to five, before settling on three by early 1968. 

The Demo 

Engelbart prepares for the Demo at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium).

Engelbart prepares for the Demo at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium).

Image: The HEnry Ford Museum

By March 1968, word about Engelbart’s work was becoming a topic of conversation around Stanford and the nascent and still small West Coast computer industry. “He was a real connector type of person,” his daughter says. “He was always meeting and calling up to meet people. People visiting the Institute would be brought by to see what was happening in the lab, and he had already been giving demos to explain what they were doing. He figured it was better to show what they were doing rather than write about it.”

The biannual Fall Joint Computer Conference posters for Engelbart’s presentation went up, and a buzz began. Engelbart’s reputation prompted show organizers to find a larger space for his presentation, settling on the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, now named for concert promoter Bill Graham, next door to Brooks Hall where the conference was being held. 

There was just one problem: the ARC lab at SRI was 30 miles away from San Francisco in Menlo Park. While his NLS console and workstation were sort of portable, the rest of the lab’s gear was not, especially the SDS940 mainframe. 

Herman Miller designers collaborated with Engelbart to create custom office furniture in time for the demo, including this custom swivel keyboard console with space for mouse and keyset, mounted on a Eames-style captain’s chair.

Herman Miller designers collaborated with Engelbart to create custom office furniture in time for the demo, including this custom swivel keyboard console with space for mouse and keyset, mounted on a Eames-style captain’s chair.

Image: ARC Bootstrapper 

In Adam Fisher’s new book “Valley of Genius,” English explained the unique long-distance communications he helped set up for the Demo: 

What we did was lease two video circuits from the phone company. They set up a microwave link: two transmitters on the top of the building at SRI, receiver/transmitters up on Skyline Boulevard [in Woodside] on a truck, and two receivers at the Civic Center. That was our video link. Going back we had two dedicated 1,200-baud lines: high-speed lines at the time. Homemade modems.

Engelbart had little clue as to the import of what he was about to present — as far as he was concerned, he was far from finished — and so made no provision to preserve it. But at the last minute, someone said, “We have these cameras,” which were then rigged to film the Demo for a thankful posterity. There are two minor cuts during the video; this is where the film cannisters were changed.

Looming above the stage was a 22 x 18-foot screen that would magnify what Engelbart was doing on his terminal. Engelbart was casually seated on the stage below the screen to the right of the audience. He was clad in the requisite white shirt and tie with a black boom mic dangling over the right side of his face and the thick NLS keyboard/mouse console draped across the arms of his chair. After some introductory remarks on the unique nature of the presentation, apologizing for his seated posture, and his hopes that all would proceed smoothly, Engelbart summarized his thesis.

“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 instantaneously responsible…” Engelbart nervously paused then corrected himself — “…responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?”

That sounds like a silly question now, but in 1968, the idea of a computer on every desk was absurd, something out of The Jetsons. Then things got weird.

Engelbart began by displaying a pedantic list of groceries and errand locations, using the mouse to move the “bug” cursor to click on words to reveal hyperlinked layers below. By pointing-and-clicking, he smoothly rearranged, reordered, recategorized, and restructured lists and sub-lists – demonstrating what Engelbart called “information structures,” sort of a combination of word processing and free-form spreadsheet editing and sorting.

To attendees, it looked as if whatever digital magic Engelbart was performing was accomplished right on stage. But every keystroke and mouse movement Engelbart made on the NLS console keyboard and mouse in San Francisco was instantly transmitted back to the lab’s SDS940 mainframe back in Menlo Park. Video cameras captured Engelbart’s manipulations on the system’s CRT, and everything was then again instantly beamed back to and projected on the Civic Auditorium screen — all with virtually no lag.

XKCD Cartoon honoring Doug Engelbart and his 1968 Demo

XKCD Cartoon honoring Doug Engelbart and his 1968 Demo

During the second half of the Demo, Engelbart established a videoconferencing connection with software engineer Jeff Rulifson back at the ARC Labs in Menlo Park. Engelbart and Rulifson provided a tour of the lab, showing and describing how the video conferencing was accomplished, and engaged in a video conversation while simultaneous editing documents. The pair engaged in a brief “bug fight” when both tried to edit the same document. The pair also demonstrated an early version of email, which was more like what we think of as text messaging.

Everything worked perfectly, with only a minor, quickly corrected audio glitch late in the demo — a stunning achievement in itself in this pre-internet age, and a marvel considering the technology available at the time. 

During the presentation, you could hear a pin drop, except when Engelbart made some wry observation. To those who thought the whole thing a hoax — and there were many skeptics — Engelbart invited anyone interested to come visit the lab. After thanking his 17-man team and apologizing to his wife and daughter for his monomaniacal dedication to his work, the crowd erupted into a lengthy standing ovation.

Legacy of the Demo

While an epochal event in computer and technological history, the Demo was just the beginning for both Engelbart and the acolytes he had inspired. 

Engelbart’s NLS was the first host attached to the decentralized interconnected computer network being developed by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which was a co-sponsor of the Demo and with whom Engelbart had worked closely. On October 29, 1969, Engelbart’s lab was at the receiving end of the first message transmitted over ARPANET, which would eventually lead to the inception of the internet. SRI commercialized the NLS, which was used by hundreds of organizations.

Over the next few years, a half dozen or so of Engelbart’s SRI team members including English and Rulifson were recruited by the newly established Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). These ARC alumni, along with other engineers who attended or were inspired by the Demo and Engelbart, developed the Alto, the first personal computer equipped with a GUI and a mouse. In December 1979, Alto was seen by Steve Jobs and other Apple engineers, who adapted its GUI, WYSIWYG, and mouse ideas for the LISA and then the Macintosh. The Mac, of course, then inspired Bill Gates to develop Windows OS. Every OS since is imbued with Engelbart’s human augmentation concepts.

Douglas Engelbart in 2002.

Douglas Engelbart in 2002.

Image: Tom Munnecke/Getty Images

And unlike other innovators who experience one or two “Eureka!” moments before moving on to another project or challenge, the idea of how computerized tools aid how we think and collaborate became Engelbart’s lifelong pursuit. In 1989, Engelbart and his daughter formed the non-profit Bootstrap Institute, which was renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute in 2008, and is now run by his daughter.

Engelbart was awarded 20 patents and was the recipient of myriad awards and honors including the PC Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award (1987), the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (1993), the Lemelson-MIT Prize (1997), induction into the Computer Hall of Fame and the U.S. National Medal of Technology, presented by President Bill Clinton (2000), the Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition (2005), and induction into the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame in 2012. 

Engelbart may have died on July 2, 2013, but his work lives on in every point and click we make.

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