Tuesday Dec 9, 2008 | Forty years after the Mother of All Demos
On Dec 9, 1968 Doug Engelbart stepped onto a stage in front of about 2,000 people. He adjusted his headset and sat down before his mouse, chord key set, and twenty-two foot TV projection screen. His NLS/Augment system prefigured the Web, shared screen teleconferencing, much of what we know as hypertext, in what's often called the Mother of All Demos. Read this authorized clip from John Markoff's excellent book What the Dormouse Said or see the video of the Demo.
"Doug Engelbart sat under a twenty-two-foot-high video screen, "dealing lightning with both hands." At least that's the way it seemed to Chuck Thacker, a young Xerox PARC computer designer who was later shown a video of the demonstration that changed the course of the computer world.
"On December 9, 1968, the oNLine System was shown publicly to the world for the first time. Encouraged by [Bob] Taylor, Engelbart had chosen the annual Fall Joint Computer Conference, the computer industry's premier gathering, for Augment's debut. In the darkened Brooks Hall auditorium in San Francisco, all the seats were filled and people lined the walls. On the giant video screen at his back, Engelbart demonstrated a system that seemed like science fiction to a data-processing world reared on punched cards and typewriter terminals. In one stunning ninety-minute session, he showed how it was possible to edit text on a display screen to make hypertext links from one electronic document to another, and to mix text and graphics, and even video and graphics. He also sketched out a vision of an experimental computer network to be called ARPAnet and suggested that within a year he would be able to give the same demonstration remotely to locations across the country. In short, every significant aspect of today's computing world was revealed in a magnificent hour and a half.
"There were two things that particularly dazzled the audience on that rainy Monday morning in December 1968: First, computing had made the leap from number crunching to become a communications and information-retrieval tool. Second, the machine was being used interactively with all its resources appearing to be devoted to a single individual! It was the first time that truly personal computing had been seen.
"Engelbart spoke softly in a monotone, his voice given a slightly eerie quality by the reverberations of the cavernous hall. Wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and a tie and seated at a desk on a custom-designed Herman Miller chair, he introduced the world to cyberspace. He showed the nation's best computer scientists and hardware engineers how people would in the future work together and share complex digital information instantaneously, even though they might be a world apart.
"For many who witnessed it, it was more than a bolt from the blue: It was a religious experience, inspiring the same kinds of passion that Vannevar Bush's Memex article had given rise to for Engelbart twenty-three years earlier. Computing was just beginning to have an impact on society. Local newspaper articles that preceded the conference noted that there would be discussions of the privacy implications of the use of computers, and a public forum, "Information, Computers and the Political Process," would feature broadcaster Edward P. Morgan and Santa Clara County's member of the House of Representatives, Paul McCloskey Jr.
"But Engelbart stole the show. In the days afterward, the published accounts of the event described nothing else. Years later, his talk remained 'the mother of all demos,' in the words of Andries van Dam, a Brown University computer scientist. In many ways, it is still the most remarkable computer-technology demonstration of all time."
Although the anniversary has gotten some trade press coverage, most stories call this the "40th anniversary of the mouse". Yes, Doug and his team at SRI invented the mouse - and Doug demonstrated it during the shared screen interactive hypertext demo.
To put things in perspective - praising Doug and his team for creating the mouse is a little like praising Leonardo da Vinci and the kids who hung around Florence for the quality of their paint brushes. The mouse is arguably one of the least of an impressive roster of inventions demonstrated that day. What they showed that day inspired generations of researchers including Alan Kay and Andy van Dam. John Naughton of the Guardian wrote:
Mr Engelbart has always viewed technology as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The vision that has driven him since he was a radar technician in the US army in World War Two is the idea that computers offer a way of augmenting human intelligence - power-steering for the mind. That's why his Stanford lab was called the 'Augmentation Lab'
... if progress on making computers easier to use has been limited, we have made even less headway on Engelbart's goal of using them to augment human intelligence. And such progress as has been made comes not from the software that runs on PCs but from the fact that we have found a way of enabling them - and therefore their users - to communicate. In that sense, Wikipedia is closer to an embodiment of 'augmentation' than any piece of software ever written. And Google can be seen as a memory prosthesis for humanity - or at least for that part of it that has access to the network.
On Tuesday morning, Engelbart and his wife will kick off a conference at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation to mark the 40th anniversary of his landmark San Francisco presentation. The subject is 'collective intelligence'. He's a famously prickly character, so my guess is that his reaction will be to observe, as Gandhi famously did when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: 'That would be a good idea.' - John Naughton The Guardian Dec 7, 2008
One caveat on Mr. Naughton's story. I wouldn't call Doug a 'prickly character'; he is kind, thoughtful and one of the most considerate people I've met. I would say that Doug is often bemused by the length of time it has taken for people to understand his motivation and objectives.
As Alan Kay said: “Less progress has been made in the last 25 years than before 1980... the commercialization of technology spread it wide and thin without getting to the real heart of the matter. We call it reinventing the flat tire. We wish they’d reinvent the wheel.”
Doug started off several decades ahead of the rest of the world - and we're finally starting to catch up. Happily over the past decade Doug has been getting the recognition he richly deserves (National Medal of Technology, Lemilson-MIT prize, Turing Award, Lovelace medal, etc).
The Program for the Future is hosting a two day celebration starting Monday Dec 8 (open to virtual participation - free registration required), followed by SRI's Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing event at Stanford University Memorial Hall (tickets required).
I hope SRI or Stanford will post a video of the event. It's awfully ironic that the birth of interactive hypertext collaboration will be celebrated by a Stanford paid admission event with no live Web broadcast or promise of a public record video. [ See SRI Dawn of Interactive Computing Youtube playlist ]
Doug Engelbart Video Archive: 1968 Demo - FJCC Conference Presentation Reel Dec 9, 1968 Internet Archive, the so called Mother of All Demos. See also From Pranksters to PCs chapter about Engelbart's 1968 FJCC demo from John Markoff's book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, authorized excerpt.
Tricycles vs. Training Wheels - Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay