Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
The computer mouse
Years before personal computers and desktop information processing
became commonplace or even practicable, Douglas Carl Engelbart
had invented a number of interactive, user-friendly information
access systems that we take for granted today: the computer
mouse, windows, shared-screen teleconferencing, hypermedia,
groupware, and more
Born in 1925, Engelbart grew up during the Great Depression
near Portland, Oregon. He finished high school in 1942, and
then studied electrical engineering at Oregon State University.
During World War II, he took a break from his studies to serve
in the Navy, which sent him to the Philippines for two years
as an electronic/radar technician. In 1948 he received his
B.S. degree in electrical engineering and went to work for
NACA Ames Laboratory (forerunner of NASA). He then applied
to the graduate program in electrical engineering at the University
of California, Berkeley and obtained his Ph.D. in 1955. He
stayed on at Berkeley as an acting assistant professor but
a year later he left to work for Stanford Research Institute,
or SRI Intl.
At SRI, Engelbart earned a dozen patents in two years,
working on magnetic computer components, fundamental digital-device
phenomena, and miniaturization scaling potential. In 1962
he published his seminal work, "Augmenting Human Intellect:
A Conceptual Framework," under contract prepared for the
Director of Information Sciences of the U.S. Air Force Office
of Scientific Research. This outlined his visionary ideas
for using computers to complement humans' intelligence.
Many shrugged off his ideas at the time; for most it was
too difficult to grasp what he was describing because the
concepts were too futuristic.
At the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco
in 1968, Engelbart astonished his colleagues by demonstrating
a computer system called NLS (oNLine System) using a "primitive"
192-kilobyte mainframe computer located 25 miles away to
demonstrate hypermedia, on-screen video teleconferencing,
and a device he called an "X-Y Position Indicator for a
Display System." This device would later become known worldwide
as the indispensible computer mouse. Engelbart's presentation
at the conference was met with a standing ovation.
Now, years later, his inventions have been integrated into
mainstream computing as industry capabilities have increased.
It was not until 1984 that the Apple Macintosh popularized
the mouse; but today it is difficult to imagine a personal
computer without one. And the huge success of Microsoft's
Windows system proves that Engelbart's original windows
concept has also become a virtual necessity.
Engelbart continued to direct SRI's Augmentation Research
Center until 1978 when the lab was closed down for lack
of funding. NLS then became the principal line of business
in Tymshare's Office Automation Division under the name
Augment. In 1984, Tymshare was acquired by McDonnell Douglas
Corporation, which terminated Engelbart's laboratory in
That year Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Institute in
Palo Alto, Calif. with his daughter, and he has worked for
the non-profit research and development organization ever
since. He devotes his time to R&D, consulting, publications,
speaking engagements, seminars and workshops, and he is
working with a team of volunteers on designing of a prototype
open-hyperdocument system (OHS), which he hopes may one
day replace paper record keeping entirely.
Engelbart has authored over 25 publications, earned more
than 20 patents, and received many honors, including the
1997 Lemelson-MIT Prize. In 2000, he was awarded the National
Medal of Technology from President Clinton. In a talk delivered
at MIT in 1996 Bill Gates praised Engelbart for his pioneering
work, and Byte magazine, in an article honoring the 20 persons
who have had the greatest impact on personal computing (September
1995), compared him to Thomas Edison.