Silicon Valley honors the life and work of Doug Engelbart

The Computer History Museum hosted an evening of tributes to technology legend Doug Engelbart.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor
Stewart Brand speaking about Doug Engelbart - at Computer History Museum.


This week marked the anniversary of a groundbreaking 1968 lecture by computer pioneer Doug Engelbart and colleagues at SRI International, that changed the lives of those that were there, and even changed the lives of those that heard about it from others that were there.

Several hundred people gathered at the Computer History Museum for an evening program of tributes and discussion of Engelbart’s genius, and to raise money for the continuation of his work. He was born in 1925 and died earlier this year.

Speakers included Ted Nelson, a computer pioneer who is credited with inventing the hyperlink, and much more; Stewart Brand, president of Long Now Foundation and Whole Earth Catalog publisher; futurist Paul Saffo, Guerrino De Luca, chairman, of Logitech; Curt Carlson, CEO of SRI International; Adam Cheyer, co-founder of Siri; and John Markoff senior writer at The New York Times.

The audience was as impressive as those on the podium, and filled with computer pioneers and successful entrepreneurs, who had worked with Engelbart or had been influenced by his work.

The final address was given by his daughter, Christina Engelbart, (below) who made the poignant observation o that her father was widely celebrated for his least important achievement (inventing the computer “mouse”) while his most important work is still largely unknown.

It was an extraordinary event and I stayed late talking with many that knew him and were changed by his work. I was surprised how many people had read my work and my prior articles about Doug Engelbart. Ted Nelson, (below, middle) who I revere tremendously, (he realized in the early 1960s that the commuter is a media machine), said he instructs his students to read my articles about Doug Engelbart. 

The “Mother of all Demos” is how people refer to the 1968 lecture and demonstration of how computers in the future will interface with people. The graphical user interface with a “mouse” pointing device was shown, along with video-conferencing, email, spreadsheets, word processors, etc essentially all the aspects of computing that we take for granted today.

At the time, computer interfaces were simple terminals using command lines and programs were stored on punch cards or magnetic tape. 

But Engelbart’s great insight was that easier to use computers would result in a flowering of humanity. He foresaw computer technologies as augmenting people’s abilities and intellect rather than replacing them. This humanistic approach to technology has yet to be realized which is why his work is unfinished. 

There are 50 years worth of archives split between Stanford University and the Computer History Museum. If you know of any materials connected with Engelbart please contact Marc Weber, Founding Curator at the Computer History Museum (marc at webhistory.org). You can also send money to support the Engelbart Memorial Fund at computerhistory.org/contribute. You can also help fund the Doug Engelbart Institute, which continues his work. 

I was fortunate to meet Doug Engelbart in June 2005 at a dinner promoting John Markoff’s book, "What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry."

I was late getting to the restaurant and I saw that most people were crammed onto Markoff’s big round table, but off to the side was another large table, half- empty but there was Doug Engelbart. I couldn’t believe my good fortune at coming late because I was able to sit next to him!

We talked for several hours and I was fascinated. I’ve always been a keen history buff and the stories I was hearing were amazing.

Doug Engelbart was very generous towards Markoff’s book, which chronicled the development, and the rise of the “Personal Computer,” which was described as a revolutionary break with the big, centralized computer systems of their time that were time-shared among users. The PC became an allegory for personal freedom and rebellion against “the man” amid the horrors of the Vietnam war, and the violence domestically, and internationally during the Cold War.

I was shocked when Doug Engelbart told me that he and his colleagues had developed working graphical user interfaces, spreadsheets, video-conferencing, email, personal workstations that looked just like PCs, etc — all the commonplace features of computing that we would recognize today, but this was nearly 40 years ago! Yet when the microcomputer emerged in the late 1970s all of his funding dried up because it was based on a central computer.  For the next nearly forty years he wandered around as if in a desert where no one would fund his work. 

His technologies were built around personal workstations, which looked very much like a PC workstation, but they shared time on a central large computer. With the microcomputer or PC, all that work was scrapped and we had to reinvent everything, from the compilers, to the apps, and the communications, over the next two decades or so.

It was as if Pol Pot, the ruler of Cambodia, who’s tyranny murdered millions as he tried to rest the country to year zero, had taken over the mindset of the computer research and rest all that work to year zero.

[Interestingly, Pol Pot was born in the same year as Doug Engelbart, 1925 and his devastation of Cambodia spanned 1975 to 1979, roughly the same period as nearly all computer research work shifted to the microcomputer.]

Today our computing infrastructure is based on a very large central computer system (server farm) connected to thousands of clients. Back to the past. Think how far along we would have been as a society if we hadn’t had to reinvent all those wheels…

It seems extraordinary that in Silicon Valley, who’s chief currency is ideas and not revenues, allowed Doug Engelbart to spend decades without funding, and without the full means to pursue his groundbreaking work. Ted Nelson is another computer industry visionary who was, and still is, in the same position.  

To be fair, the scope of Engelbart’s vision is not an easy one to grasp. Adam Cheyer, co-founder of Siri, worked with Doug Engelbart when he was younger. He says he was attracted to his ideas and started to try to implement them in some coding over a spare weekend or two, but as he found out more and more, he saw how daunting the task would be.

His daughter Christina Engelbart, executive director of the Doug Engelbart Institution, tells me that within the 50 years of archives, there’s a tremendous amount of his work that still needs to be cataloged and interpreted within a much larger context that looks at how computers and humans can meet the extreme challenge of a future filled with an exponentially growing number of problems. It can only be done through collective intelligence and collaboration in execution. He believed that the power of computers can augment and amplify human abilities. 

Doug Engelbart believed that human potential needs to grow exponentially to meet the challenges to our survival. It’s a human centric vision. However, our society rarely recognizes the work of those that foresee and preempt problems before they become disasters.

Doug Engelbart failure to win funding should not be confused with a failure of his ideas. And his work is not at an end. Etan Ayalon, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, told me he asked Doug Engelbart a couple of years ago, how much of his work has been realized so far? He thought about it and answered: 2.5 per cent.

I’m in no doubt that Doug Engelbart will be widely recognized by future generations as a true visionary amid a lackluster group of tech leaders who think their business acumen is a proxy for sharp insights into the world of tomorrow.

People will listen to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg, John Doerr, etc, when they talk about the future because of their success in building personal wealth and not because of their intellect.

Bill Gates, for example, didn’t see the impact of the Internet at all in his 1995 book “The Road Ahead.” These people are not futurists because their view of the future is quarterly based.

There is as yet, no road ahead, to Doug Engelbart’s future. That road still needs to be built and there’s a lot of work to be done.

Doug Engelbart was not good at business and he was not worth billions or millions.  The several hundred people that crammed into the Computer History Museum were there to pay tribute to his life’s work, ideas, and his character — these are the values that matter and they cannot be bought — they can only be earned.


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