Late Great Engineers: Douglas Engelbart - personalising the computer

American engineer Douglas Engelbart is usually described as the inventor of the computer mouse. But there’s so much more to his pioneering career than a simple pointing device. Written by Nick Smith.

SRI International/Creative Commons

If ever there was an engineer with a vision it was Douglas Engelbart. Back in the early 1950s, he saw a direction for early number-crunching computers that went beyond punched-card programming. As if he’d returned from the future, while still in his mid-twenties, Engelbart envisioned a world in which people sat at cathode-ray tubes ‘flying around’ in an information space, using networked computers and collective human intelligence to solve global problems. His daughter and business partner Christina, who co-founded what’s now called the Doug Engelbart Institute, wrote that he “had read about computers, and considered how they might be used to support mankind’s efforts to solve these problems.”

Sometimes described as one of the great Internet pioneers, Engelbart is mainly remembered today for his role in the invention of the computer mouse, the development of the graphic user interface (GUI), hypertext and networked computing. Throughout his long career, Engelbart nurtured a complex personal philosophy that informed everything he did, paving the way for the modern application of co-evolved technology and philosophy. But as Engelbart’s obituary in the Guardian states: “While he became a much-loved and oft-lauded Silicon Valley celebrity, his most visionary ideas were neglected and went unfunded.”

The mouse is just one of Engelbert's many contributions to modern computing - AdobeStock

Douglas Carl Engelbart was born in Oregon on 30 January 1925. Descended from the early pioneers of the West, he grew up on a farmstead in rural Portland. With America’s boom years and the Jazz Age already making way for the Great Depression, the closest the young Douglas got to technology in Johnson Creek was tearing up burlap sacks to make tree-climbing rope. Not much is recorded of his formative years, but we know that after graduating from high school in 1942, Engelbart went on to study electrical engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis. During the height of the Second World War he enlisted in the Navy and served for two years in the Philippines as a radar technician. After completing his degree in 1948, Christina says, “he settled contentedly on the San Francisco peninsula as an electrical engineer at NACA Ames Laboratory (forerunner of NASA).”

Three years later he was engaged, his horizons no broader than looking for “a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after.” During this time Engelbart read an article by Vannevar Bush called ‘As We May Think’ that advocated broadcasting knowledge as a post-war grand challenge. Having also read about the recent technological phenomenon of ‘the computer’, Engelbart had his epiphany and constructed a set of ideas that would refocus his career ambitions on nothing less than making the world a better place. This could only be achieved, he reasoned, by harnessing collective human intelligence through interactive computers. His experience with radar had convinced him of the virtues of seeing information on screens. Christina takes up the story: “So he applied to the graduate program in electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and off he went to launch his crusade. At that time, there was no computer science department, and the closest working computer was probably on the eastern side of the country.”

Although he gained his doctorate at Berkeley, Engelbart was regarded as unorthodox. Within a year he’d been advised by colleagues that if he continued with his ‘wild ideas’ it was unlikely that he’d be promoted beyond his role as acting assistant professor. Sensing that the writing was on the wall, Engelbart beat a retreat to the rapidly emerging Silicon Valley community, in search of more suitable employment. He landed a job at Stanford Research Institute – now SRI International – in Menlo Park, where he filed a dozen patents in his first two years, and by 1959 he was able to secure approval for pursuing his own research. He spent the following two years formulating an analytical structure for a new discipline that became the guiding force for his work, which he published in his 1962 report Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, prepared under contract for the Director of Information Sciences of the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

This led to funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Engelbart recruited a research team in his new Augmentation Research Center or ARC, which developed the NLS (oN-Line System). The ARPAnet was created partly to support NLS, and ARC was the second node on what became the internet. Engelbart embedded a set of ‘bootstrapping’ principles at ARC designed to accelerate the rate of innovation. His daughter explains bootstrapping thus: “the better we get at our collective IQ, the better we’d get at improving our collective IQ.” The term held such significance with Engelbart that when he established what was to become the Doug Engelbart Institute in 1988, it was originally called the Bootstrap Institute.

Perhaps the moment of greatest impact in Engelbart’s career came on 9 December 1968 at the Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco where, having appropriated a video projector, he took to the stage in front of a thousand delegates. Instead of standing at a podium, Engelbart sat at a custom designed console, where he drove the presentation through the NLS computer 30 miles away in his research laboratory at Stanford Research Institute. Projected onto a large overhead screen, Engelbart flipped “seamlessly between his presentation outline and live demo of features, while members of his research lab video teleconferenced in from SRI in shared screen mode to demonstrate more of the system.”Engelbart made engineering history that day, with the first public display of the computer mouse, hypermedia and on-screen video teleconferencing. The audience erupted in applause for what has since been dubbed “the mother of all demos.” Computer scientist Alan Kay, a co-founder of Xerox PARC, said later: “The demo was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To me, it was Moses opening the Red Sea … It reset the whole conception of what was reasonable to think about in personal computing.”

But it wasn’t all plain sailing for Engelbart, who spent much of the mid-1960s developing user interface ideas at a time when most computers were inaccessible to individuals, long before the personal computer revolution. By 1967 he had applied for a patent for a device described as “an X-Y position indicator control for movement by the hand over any surface to move a cursor over the display on a cathode ray tube.” Developed with his lead engineer Bill English, the prototype ‘mouse’ – so called because “a tail came out of the end” – started life as a wooden shell with two metal wheels inside. Engelbart did not profit from the device that would achieve a global market of $17.37 billion in 2020. He once said that SRI had patented the mouse, “but they really had no idea of its value. Some years later it was learned that they had licensed it to Apple Computer for something like $40,000.”

By the 1970s Engelbart’s heyday was over. Divergent attitudes on the future of computing meant that many of his younger collaborators jumped ship and went to the newly founded Xerox PARC that concentrated more on the emerging personal computer technology than the networked client-server computing that formed the bedrock of Engelbart’s vision of the future. With the gradual de-funding of non-military science research in the US – that effectively put an end to the Apollo program – ARC was placed under the control of Tymeshare where Engelbart’s bootstrapping often played second fiddle to the financial concerns of the company. When McDonnel Douglas took over Tymeshare, prospects for Engelbart’s research appeared to improve, but his projects never received the money or personnel they needed to become effective. As his career suffered, Engelbart’s house burned down, and by 1989 he’d left the commercial sector for good. In the final phase of his career he joined forces with Christina to establish the Bootstrap Institute, “in a quest to form strategic alliances aimed at dramatically improving organisations and society at large.”

Engelbart died on 2 July 2013 at his home in San Francisco having spent a lifetime as an idealist, often considered to be several decades ahead of his time. “Through the years he has been misunderstood, told he was dead wrong, ridiculed or simply ignored,” writes Christina. But he wasn’t ignored by everyone. As the world came to understand the significance of Engelbart’s contribution to the evolution of the digital world as we know it today, he was showered with honours. Perhaps the most important of which arrived in December 2000, when US President Bill Clinton conferred on Engelbart the National Medal of Technology, his country’s most prestigious award in the field.