When Douglas Engelbart took the stage at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in December 1968 to demonstrate the NLS (oN Line System), a computer he and some colleagues at the Stanford Research Institute had built, only a handful of the 2,000 people gathered for the Fall Joint Computer Conference could have imagined how prescient the demo would prove. Engelbart sat at a computer console and spoke into an ear-mounted headset while his face was video-projected onto a screen behind him. Overlaid on the image of his talking head was a computer display, the kind of text-only display that a generation of personal computer enthusiasts would come to know, but until then had never been seen. He typed a few words on the blank screen. And then Engelbart began to manipulate the words he had typed. A strange object appeared on the screen, a small, moving black dot.
The First Mouse
The little dot is what we now call a cursor. Engelbart was moving it with a peculiar device under his right hand, a chunky, square box with a few buttons, tethered to the machine with a cord. In the lab, he and his colleagues had called it a "mouse," after its tail-like cable, and the name stuck. With this mouse, Engelbart was able to select text, move it around, and otherwise manipulate it. The mouse was not simply a pointing device, though. It was a key element of the NLS, which in turn was a key element of Engelbart's larger ideas about "Human Augmentation"making systems and tools that would help people work smarter and better. He has been pursuing those ideas since he had an epiphany about what to do with his life in 1950, while driving to his job as an engineer at the NACA (later NASA) Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.
Born in Oregon in 1925, Engelbart was the grandson of Western pioneers and the son of a radio store owner and a mother who, he remembers, was "quite sensitive, and artistic." His father passed away when he was only nine, and the family's finances were tight. After high school, he studied electrical engineering at Oregon State University for two years, then signed up with the Navy. This was in 1944, the thick of World War II, though on the day he shipped out of San Francisco, Japan surrendered.
Two important things happened to Engelbart in the Navy. He served as a radar technician, which gave him direct experience with how information could be conveyed directly, electronically, on a screen. And while he was stationed in the Philippines, he came across a copy of Life magazine that included Vannevar Bush's essay, "As We May Think," which described something like the personal computer (as well as something like the World Wide Web).
After the war, Engelbart finished his degree and moved down to the San Francisco Bay Area, to work at Ames. Within a few years, his work there had become less than exciting, and he began to wonder what else he could, or rather, should be doing. The epiphany came to him the day after he asked his future wife, Ballard, to marry him. He was driving to work, thinking, and "I had this realization that I didn't have any more goals, and that getting married and living happily ever after was the last of my goals," he told a Stanford University interviewer in 1986. So Engelbart began looking at the various avenues he could take to do something beneficial, and still make a living. He thought about going into economics, or education. But then he saw, suddenly and whole, the problem that he could help solve. Engelbart realized that everything had changed. The world was moving away from old modes of work, industry, and thought. Civilization had reached a point where the problems it was facing were growing increasingly complex, and at the same time they were growing more urgent. This complexity and urgency "had transcended what humans can cope with," he explained. "It suddenly flashed that if you could do something to improve human capability to deal with that, then you'd really contribute something basic."
What was needed was a new way to work with information and for people to work with each other. Engelbart, who had read about digital computers and had experience with the display screens used in radar systems, quickly envisioned a technological solution. "I think it was just within an hour that I had the image of sitting at a big screen with all kinds of symbols, new and different symbols," he remembers. "I also really got a clear picture that one's colleagues could be sitting in other rooms with similar workstations, tied to the same computer complex, and could be sharing and working and collaborating very closely."
It took 18 years to get from that vision to the demonstration in San Francisco. Engelbart left NACA to enter the electrical engineering Ph.D. program at U.C. Berkeley, which offered the chance to study computers, though it did not have a computer itself. After earning his Ph.D. he joined the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), an independent think-tank in Menlo Park, and soon began to outline the system he had envisioned a decade earlier. In 1963 he published a paper entitled "A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man's Intellect." The paper caught the eye of the U.S. Advance Research Projects Agency, and Engelbart was able to found the Augmentation Research Center at SRI.
The First Word Processor
His research center set out to create new tools for working with ideas and words. There were two main ideas Engelbart followed in developing such a tool, which would become the NLS. First was the creation of a new "writing machine" that would let someone revise and reorganize text and ideas on the fly. In essence, this "writing machine" was a word processor. But his hypothesized tool was more than a better way of getting words down on paper. In his new system, Engelbart saw a path to more advanced thinking: "If the tangle of thoughts represented by the draft becomes too complex," he wrote, "you can compile a reordered draft quickly." The second idea that guided him was that for people to work better, they had to be able to work together, to share their "trails of thought" and develop them collaboratively, in real time. The NLS allowed two or more users to work on the same document from different workstations, even from different locations.
The early 1960s was an unlikely time to be building a computer intended for tasks such as writing and manipulating ideas. Since the digital computer's birth in the 1940s, its main work had revolved around crunching numbers. Power was more important than speed, and "ease of use" was unheard of. Computers required operators to enter programs and data slowly, by hand, on paper cards or paper tape. They'd put the cards into a "reader," then wait 20 minutes or so for a result. No one imagined that computers could work instantaneously. And no one, it seemed, could see the benefits of devoting a computer's power to tasks such as writing and outlining.
Much Still to be Done
Today, the spiritual descendants of Engelbart's NLS, with its mouse and graphic display and "writing machine," sit on almost every desk in the world. And with the arrival of the Internet and local-area networks and "groupware" like Lotus Notes, it seems that much of Engelbart's vision has been realized. Yet the core ideas of his work on "augmentation" remain unrealized. The personal computer has allowed us to work better, but we still work, for the most part, alone. Today's computers and the Internet and the Web are small advances, but the challenge is still huge. "Relative to what our potential is, we can go as high as Mt. Everest, and we're only at 2,000 feet," he says. "If we humans don't learn how to be collectively smarter as fast as we can, there's going to be a better and better chance that the human race is just going to crash. That's what keeps us going."