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Douglas Engelbart, the forgotten hero of modern computing

Half a century ago, Douglas Engelbart demonstrated an experimental computer that laid the foundations for modern computing. His vision to use computing power to solve complex problems in all areas of human activity has become reality, but not in the way that he imagined

Fifty years ago, computer visionary and internet pioneer Douglas Engelbart, along with 17 researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), gave a public demonstration of a computer called the oN-Line System (NLS).

Their work laid the foundations that would shape modern computing: the mouse, hyperlinks, word processing, dynamic file linking, windows, graphical user interfaces (GUIs), collaborative real-time editors and videoconferencing, as well as the philosophy of collaboration and knowledge sharing. 

Englebart continued his work at Xerox Parc, an experimental research laboratory. In 1979, Steve Jobs and a group of Apple engineers visited the labs and “discovered” the technologies (GUIs, the mouse, windows and icons) that would come together to form the Macintosh and inform the next 30 years of computer design and engineering. 

Engelbart could scarcely have predicted the significance of his demonstration at SRI on 9 December 1968. As computer scientist, composer and designer Bill Buxton puts it, Engelbart had “no interest in making tech easy to use for the general public”. He could not have imagined his early demonstration of videoconferencing could have led to easy-to-use videoconference apps such as FaceTime or Skype.

The NLS that Engelbart and his researchers at SRI’s Augmented Human Intellect Research Centre demonstrated was a complex machine that was difficult to operate. Learning to use the machine effectively required thousands of hours of practice – a feat compared to becoming a virtuoso violinist.

Engelbart was driven by a philosophy set out in his 1962 paper Augmenting human intellect to optimise the efficiency of a working human being. The paper set out a desire for computers to “increase the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation”.

By complex situations, Englebart meant the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys and designers, “whether the problem situation exists for 20 minutes or 20 years.”

“We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids,” he wrote.

Few of the apps and software suites each of us use daily can be held to this high standard. It is too easy to become lost in a sea of unintegrated information and find it more difficult than ever to deliver results at work. The commercialisation and commodification of computer software and systems has had a huge impact on our everyday lives and work, though perhaps not in the way that Engelbart foresaw. 

Technology is at its most interesting when it is used in ways its designers didn’t imagine. The grass roots disaster relief network Occupy Sandy used Amazon wedding lists to distribute aid after Hurricane Sandy. Moira Donegan, a New York-based writer, used a public Google Sheet to challenge harassment in the media industry.

As soon as new technologies enter the public domain they become part of our culture and we have a duty to hack, play and tinker with them. 

According to Buxton, there is a tendency to create a mythology around people such as Engelbart, “like the Edison myth…but no one really creates anything. If they’re educated they look to find out whose shoulders they can stand on and create another link in the chain of progress.”

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt as to the significance and impact of Engelbart’s contribution.

What next?

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Mother of All DemosSomerset House Studios has partnered with artist and designer Ted Hunt, the Embodied AudioVisual Interaction Group (EAVI) from Goldsmiths Computing Department and Music Hackspace to host a day of demos, talks and performances to reflect on the chain of progress and ask: what next? This will take place on Sunday 9 December, from 11am to 5pm. Further details are available here.

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