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Updated: July 7, 2013 11:36 IST

On the shoulders of giants

Deepa Kurup
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Douglas Engelbart
the Hindu Douglas Engelbart

Mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart will forever be remembered for his 1968 seminal demo

At a computer conference in San Francisco in 1968, Douglas Engelbart took the tech world by storm.

Long before Steve Jobs donned the title of the demo superstar of the tech world, this computer visionary sat in front of a keyboard and operated a mouse, in a session that is retrospectively called “the mother of all demos”.

Engelbart then went on to showcase multiple windows, shared-screen teleconferencing, word processing, object addressing and bootstrapping, hypertexting and a collaborative real-time editor.

That all this was far-sighted is an understatement because most contemporaries described what they saw back then — at a time when computers occupied an entire room and processing times ran into hours — as the stuff of sci-fi.

Lasting contributions

Engelbart, who died this week in California, U.S., at the age of 88, will be remembered for his lasting contributions to the world of technology, most popularly for inventing the computer mouse, a rudimentary device with two perpendicular wheels in a wooden shell that could be used to control the computer’s graphical user interface.

The inspiration

Most biographies cite scientist Vanevar Bush’s 1945 article ‘As we may think’ as what inspired Engelbart — who had served as a radar technician during World War II — to work with computers, and then go on to make and contribute to inventions that have had a lasting impact on tech.

Bush’s post-atomic war concept of a universal information desk that he called the ‘memex’ (that wanted to make science, information and knowledge more accessible, rather than using it for destruction) formed the basis of Engelbart’s philosophy, rousing him to work towards using computers as a tool to build and improve collective intelligence rather than just the processors that they were seen as back then.

The demo

In the seminal demo, where he made public a lot of the work the Augmentation Research Center team at the Stanford Research Institute (available on YouTube) was doing, he sits in front of a screen with his rudimentary mouse, a keyboard and a screen in the background. He shows how a mouse can be used to control the interface between man and machine, how the graphical interface can be divided into multiple windows, text can be edited, windows can be used simultaneously and videoconferencing. He also showed off his system NLS (OnLine Systems), which allowed seamless information sharing and easy retrieval using a structured e-library. All this was simply futuristic; it wasn’t until two whole decades later that the idea of multiple Windows was first taken up by Xerox PARC and then passed on to Apple. Similarly, his work with the NLS also played a role in the creation of the Internet as it was a key application for which the ARPAnet network (the Internet’s early version) was created.

‘Deeply philosophical’

Engelbart’s work, many of his contemporaries believe, was “deeply philosophical” and a lot of it not adequately understood. The NLS system that he demoed, for instance, was meant to harness collective IQ, in line with his team’s purpose of wanting to augment intellect.

Many believe that the true potential of the technological system that Engelbart presented back then is yet to be realised.

They point out that his demo back then painted a world of tech, where tools and systems worked seamlessly with each other, in a way that technology doesn’t today. In his ecosystem that was purely interoperable, things gelled well, creating a “super-rich tech environment” as one of those who witnessed the demo told The Register on the 40th year celebrations of the 1968 conference.

Largely neglected

So, amidst long tributes this week recounting his early genius, were observations that his work and contributions were largely neglected and the fact he was unable to find any funding for his work in the past three decades.

His work on timesharing on mainframes-based architecture lost out once the PC revolution took over and the spotlight (and money) remained strictly on microcomputers and related architectures, focussed on the individual rather than the large systems that Engelbart was passionate about. With this, his vision to use shared systems and intelligence to augment collective intelligence took a backseat, and found neither funding nor appreciation in the Silicon Valley that was in the throes of the commerce-driven PC revolution.

He summed it up eloquently in a 1995 interview where he says: “We herald the PC revolution, but we should remember that it made us forget to share. Timesharing enabled groups to share a common pool resource, sharing that, which impacted social dynamics. With PCs, we were left on our own, however empowered.”

In 1977, his research group was bought by Tymshare, and with that his vision of using computers and technology for “boosting mankind’s capability for coping with urgent, complex problems”. After working there for a decade, he set up the Bootstrap Institute (now the Doug Engelbart Institute) along with his daughter.

Engelbart, whose ideas continue to stand the test of time while remaining underutilised, went on to win almost every prestigious technology award, including the U.S. National Medal of Technology, the Turing Award, Lemelson-MIT Prize and the British Computer Society’s Lovelace Award.

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