I had the pleasure of attending Doug Engelbart’s birthday party celebrated at The Tech Museum of Innovation last Saturday January 30th. Congratulations to Valerie Landau for organizing it, and to The Tech’s online curator, Dr. Rob Stephenson for The Tech’s hosting the star-studded event. The event was supported by Engelbart’s long-serving NextNow community, the Program for the Future organizers, and was attended by Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple). Bob Ketner, Virtual Communities Manager at The Tech Museum brought in luminaries from around the country by Internet video … the room fell silent to listen as Ted Nelson – the inventor of hypertext – called in to give a most generous tribute to Engelbart.
On Youtube – a birthday greeting with color, movement and music was posted. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfRZJLYJDTo
“The business case often takes years to make. By the early 1960s, a researcher named Douglas Engelbart had conceived of ways to harness computers so people in different places could interact to solve complex problems.
This had been Engelbart’s longtime passion since at least 1950. But he found little support in academia or among electronics firms, so he turned to the research world. His ideas eventually caught the attention of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which gave him cash to organize his own lab at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.
His proposals were radical at the time: multiuser online systems, computer displays with multiple windows, software that could process typed words.
Oh, and a clunky hand device used to move a cursor around a computer screen. “Somebody saw that thing with that one button and said, ‘Oh, it looks like a one-eared mouse,’” he recalls.
Industry a late adopter
In 1968, he demonstrated his entire NLS (oN Line System) to a stunned crowd in a San Francisco auditorium. Impressive as it was, industry mostly shrugged. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center opened in 1970 and soon had adopted similar concepts for the workplace. But Xerox was primarily interested in office systems to make secretaries more productive. Finally, in 1984, Apple put many of Engelbart’s ideas — the mouse, the windows — into its new Macintosh.
Julie Stupsker / AP file
The first mouse, left, invented by Douglas Engelbart about 40 years ago, sits with its modern day counterpart. Engelbart conceived it not as a standalone device, but as a way to control a whole online system he had developed. Many of his concepts for that system shaped the way we use computers now.
“It seemed to me it was pretty good, because no one had come up with something that was more generally usable,” Engelbart says. But he still found it “terribly restrictive,” like trying to communicate in pidgin English, even after a Redmond, Wash., software maker took the idea and put it on most of the world’s remaining computers. (Said company is a joint partner in MSNBC.)
All the while, Engelbart worked to advance the concept of hypertext — linking between and within documents — and to build out the ARPANet, the Internet’s precursor. His lab, acquired by McDonnell Douglas, was shut down in 1989; currently, he runs the Bootstrap Institute out of the offices of mouse maker Logitech, still focused on how to interactively solve complex problems.
Engelbart is often portrayed as visionary — “radical,” he suggests — but perhaps with a chip on his shoulder about the realities of modern commerce. He insists it’s not sour grapes.
Rather, he argues, firms are good at extracting profits from existing inventions, but not at inspiring new ones. While he acknowledges that the profit motive drives the economy, he dismisses corporate research’s ability to create things with real societal value: “We’ll get a better microwave oven out of it. But that’s not the way we get real evolutionary changes.”
And he has seen other innovations that incorporated his concepts — this little online medium you’re using right now, for one — emerge from the nonprofit research world, only for companies to later claim them as their own.
“You’d never be able to convince me that business prospects could’ve created the Internet or the World Wide Web,” Engelbart says.”