Douglas Engelbart was born January 30, 1925 in Portland, Oregon as the middle of three children.
When he was around 9 or 10, his father died and his mother moved the family to the countryside of Johnson Creek.
World War II broke out during his senior year of high school and his mother encouraged him to attend Oregon State College at Corvallis.
However, Douglas was drafted into the United States Navy where he served two years as a radar technician in the Philippines.
It was there, in a tiny hut on stilts, that he first read Vannevar Bush’s article “As WE May Think” that would greatly inspire him.
After the war, he returned to Oregon State College and completed his Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1948.
Then Douglas was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at the Ames Research Center, where he worked he enrolled in graduate school in electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in 1951.
Douglas graduated with a Master of Science degree in 1953 and went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1955.
As a graduate student at Berkeley, Douglas assisted in the construction of the California Digital Computer project CALDIC.
His graduate work would lead to several patents.
After completing his PhD, Douglas stayed on at Berkeley as an assistant professor to teach for a year, and left when it was clear he could not pursue his vision there.
Douglas Engelbart then formed a startup company, Digital Techniques, to commercialize some of his doctorate research on storage devices, but after a year decided instead to pursue the research he had been dreaming of since 1951.
Douglas accepted a position at SRI International (known then as Stanford Research Institute) in Menlo Park, California in 1957.
He initially worked for Hewitt Crane on magnetic devices and miniaturization of electronics.
At SRI, Douglas gradually obtained over a dozen patents (some resulting from his graduate work), and by 1962 produced a report about his vision and proposed research agenda titled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.
This led to funding from ARPA to launch his work.
Douglas recruited a research team in his new Augmentation Research Center (ARC, the lab he founded at SRI).
He embedded a set of organizing principles in his lab, which he termed “bootstrapping strategy”.
The ARC became the driving force behind the design and development of the oN-Line System (NLS). He and his team worked on computer interface elements.
Douglas had conceived and developed many of his interface ideas back in the mid-1960’s, long before the personal computer revolution, and at a time when most computers were inaccessible to individuals.
Douglas Engelbart applied for a patent in 1967 for a wooden shell with two metal wheels, which he had developed with Bill English, his lead engineer, a few years earlier. In the patent application it is described as an “X-Y position indicator for a display system”. Douglas later revealed that it was nicknamed the “mouse” because the tail came out the end.
He would not receive U.S. Patent 3,541,541 (computer mouse) until 1970.
His group also called the on-screen cursor a “bug”, but this term was not widely adopted.
The Mother of All Demos
On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave a computer demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.
His live demonstration featured the introduction of a complete computer hardware/software system called the oN-Line System or more commonly, NLS.
Douglas’s 90-minute presentation essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: multiple windows, hypertext, graphics, efficient navigation and command input, video conferencing, the computer mouse, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and a collaborative real-time editor (collaborative work). This presentation was the first to publicly demonstrate all these elements in a single system.
Douglas’s demonstration was highly influential and spawned similar projects at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s.
The underlying technologies influenced both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows graphical user interface operating systems in the 1980s and 1990s.
The conference session was presented under the title A research center for augmenting human intellect.
Approximately 1,000 computer professionals were in attendance at Brooks Hall in San Francisco to witness the presentation.
Douglas Engelbart, with the help of his team, and with Bill English directing the presentation’s technical elements, demonstrated NLS’s functions.
The presentation used an Eidophor video projector that allowed the video output from the NLS computer to be displayed on a large screen so the audience could see what Englebart was doing, as well as mix video of him and his associates from ARC in Menlo Park, about 30 miles away.
The Augment researchers also created two customized high-speed modems to transfer data from their Menlo Park headquarter’s SDS-940 computer to the computer workstation at Brooks Hall.
In order to provide live two-way video between the lab and the conference hall, two microwave links were used, relayed by a microwave van near the summit of a hill that overlooked both sites.
English also commanded a video switcher that controlled what was displayed on the Eidophor’s screen. The camera operator in Menlo Park was Stewart Brand, a non-computer person who also advised Englebart and the team about how to present the demo.
During the 90-minute presentation, Douglas used a mouse to move around the screen, highlight text, and resize windows. This was the first time that an integrated system for manipulating text onscreen was presented publicly. While they were editing they could see each other’s screen, talk and see each other as well. He further demonstrated that clicking on underlined text would then link to another page of information, demonstrating the concept of hypertext.
When Douglas finished the demonstration, the audience gave him a standing ovation. To further demonstrate the system, a separate room was set aside so that attendees could take a closer look at the NLS workstations and ask Englebart questions.
“The Mother of All Demos” was first ascribed to journalist Steven Levy in his 1994 book, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything, where Levy described the event as “a calming voice from Mission Control as the truly final frontier whizzed before their eyes. It was the mother of all demos.”
Subsequently, Andy Van Dam repeated the phrase in 1995 while introducing Douglas at the Vannevar Bush Symposium at MIT.
Douglas Engelbart never received any royalties for his mouse invention and patent.
During an interview, he once said “SRI 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.”
Douglas Engelbart went on to serve on the Advisory Boards of the University of Santa Clara Center for Science, Technology, and Society, Foresight Institute, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, The Technology Center of Silicon Valley, and The Liquid Information Company.
His wife Ballard died in 1997 after 47 years of marriage and four children.
He remarried on January 26, 2008 to writer and producer Karen O’Leary.
An 85th birthday celebration was held for Douglas at the Tech Museum of Innovation.
Douglas Engelbart died at his home in Atherton, California on July 2, 2013 at the age of 88 due to kidney failure.
According to the Doug Engelbart Institute, his death came after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, which he was diagnosed with in 2007.
Now WE know em