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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

How Douglas Engelbart Invented the Future

Visionary engineer Douglas Engelbart had a lot of ideas for computers. He presented some of his ideas to a crowd of a thousand engineers in December of 1968, back when computers were fed with punch cards and did little besides crunching numbers. He talked about networks of computer communicating with each other, word processing, cut and paste, saving files, and other new ideas that we take for granted today.
It wasn’t just the software that was revolutionary. Engelbart had also invented a new tracking device with the help of Bill English, an engineer on his team. As the small device rolled, a dot on the screen rolled along with it. “I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” Engelbart remarked. “Sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it.”
Engelbart called his program the ­oN-Line System, or NLS. His larger goal, beyond any of the specific functions he’d introduced, was for people to collaborate. Toward the end of his presentation, he alluded to an “experimental network” that would allow different users to collaborate from as far away as Harvard and Stanford. He was describing the ARPANET, a program that was just starting to burgeon at the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPA) under the U.S. Department of Defense.
Engelbart expected his presentation to attract hundreds of engineers eager to join him in this new wave of computing. He had, after all, introduced word processing, document sharing, version control and hyperlinks, and he’d integrated text, graphics and video conferencing. He’d even foreshadowed the internet. He thought the audience members would line up afterwards to ask how they could join his network and help develop his ideas.
Instead, they gave him a standing ovation and then filed out of the auditorium.
The engineers were impressed, but since Engelbart's ideas were decades ahead (there weren't even personal computers at the time), they didn't understand how any of it related to their own work. Engelbart also suffered when thinking too far ahead, in that he had trouble communicating his ideas all through his life; otherwise, his name would be as well-known as Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. Read about Douglas Engelbart and his innovations at Smithsonian magazine.

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