Charles Burress, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008
Little did the world realize 40 years ago that a San Francisco stage
was featuring the first public glimpse of an invention that would
revolutionize not only our daily lives but also our ability to solve
the world's problems.
An audience of about 1,000 people had witnessed the premiere of the
The Dec. 9, 1968, unveiling of the primitive device with a mouse and
interactive screen - in a now-legendary demonstration by its
inventor, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute - drew
a rousing, standing ovation from the computing cognoscenti who
recognized the significance of what they had just seen.
The machine raised hopes of solving a major modern quandary - how to
navigate the world's rapidly accumulating and increasingly complex
store of information. That year's fledgling efforts to navigate the
physical universe in spaceships seemed ponderous and slow compared to
the prospect of speeding through the universe of information in the
digital ships promised by the new computers.
The invention featured rudimentary windows and hyperlinks that
allowed jumping from one document to another, as well as the ability
to edit text and add graphics on a video monitor. The presentation
also offered a peek at future computer networks that would become the Internet.
"No one has ever before or since seen such a collection of great
ideas in one demonstration," said SRI President and CEO Curt Carlson.
The event - dubbed "the mother of all demos" by chroniclers of the
computer industry and Silicon Valley - is being commemorated on its
40th anniversary Tuesday at Stanford University in an afternoon
program titled "Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing:
SRI's Revolutionary 1968 Demo." The event includes Engelbart and some
of the other pioneers who worked with him.
The 1968 demonstration was years before anyone dreamed of Microsoft
or Apple. "Bill Gates was 12 at the time; Steve Jobs was 13," writes
John Naughton in his book "A Brief History of the Future."
Though Engelbart may have not achieved the fame of a Gates or Jobs,
his profound influence is widely acknowledged in the field.
Engelbart is "the Moses of computers," writes Steven Levy in his
history of the Macintosh.
His 1968 demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference held in
the convention center at Civic Center - featuring Engelbart in tie
and short-sleeved shirt at his computer terminal in front of a large
video screen - may seem tame and quaint to today's audiences
accustomed to high-tech special effects.
But at the time, when computers were glorified calculators as big as
cars and operating on punch cards, it was "just mind-blowing,"
recalled Bob Taylor of Woodside, who helped guide the computer
industry's evolution and who, having seen the value of what Engelbart
and his team wanted to do, provided much of the needed funding in his
role as a program manager first at NASA and then at the Department of
Defense's Advanced Research Project's Agency.
"For many who witnessed it," writes John Markoff in his book "What
the Dormouse Said," about the development of the personal computer,
"it was more than a bolt out of the blue: It was a religious experience."
"The standing ovation surprised all of us," recalled Bill English of
Novato, the SRI engineer who orchestrated the event, which featured
Engelbart not only operating the computer but also engaging in
shared-screen teleconferencing with colleagues back at SRI
headquarters in Menlo Park. (Playing a supporting role behind the
camera in Menlo Park was counterculture hero Stewart Brand, founder
of the Whole Earth Catalog.)
English is known also as the person who built the first mouse in
1964. It consisted of a small pine box equipped with a red clicker
button on top and two wheels placed at right angles underneath that
regulated the electric current that moved the cursor, then called the "bug."
No one is sure who on the small team coined the term "mouse" for the
little box with a wire coming out, English said. But the name stuck
once it was introduced.
"A small box with a tail coming out - you might as well call it a
mouse," said English, who figured out how to construct the device
based on a sketch that Engelbart had drawn in 1961.
The mouse wasn't the automatic choice. It won out only after other
approaches - a light pen, a joystick, even a knee-operated control -
proved to be far less efficient, English said.
Many retrospective looks at the 1968 demonstration have highlighted
the introduction of the mouse, which Engelbart patented under the
name "X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System."
But Engelbart resisted being known as the man who invented the mouse,
"He was focused not on computing technology per se," Taylor said. "He
was focused on how to better deal with information - how to better
arrange it, how to be able to sift through it, how to be able to
communicate it to other people. He was not a gadget guy."
It was Engelbart's animating vision of seeking vastly improved access
to the rapidly expanding store of human knowledge and information
that appealed to Taylor, who, like others in the field at that time,
were influenced by thinkers like J.C.R. Licklider, author of such
influential papers as "Man-Computer Symbiosis," published in 1960.
Engelbart's success was built also on his ability to inspire his
co-workers, Carlson said.
"Not only did he have a vision, but he had a way of going about it
that made his team work around the clock," Carlson said. "They really
bought into this idea of helping to solve the world's biggest and
most important problems."
To see the Engelbart demo and original announcement of the 1968 presentation:
For information about Tuesday's program at Stanford, "Engelbart and
the Dawn of Interactive Computing: SRI's Revolutionary 1968 Demo":
E-mail Charles Burress at email@example.com.