Douglas C. Engelbart

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Computer Scientist

Douglas Engelbart is a landmark figure in the history of

computer science. He is best known as the inventor of

the mouse. He is the founder and director of the Bootstrap

Institute and has an unparalleled 30-year track record in predicting,

designing, and implementing the future of organizational

computing.

From his early vision of turning organizations into augmented

knowledge workshops, he went on to pioneer what

is now known as collaborative hypermedia, knowledge

management, community networking, and organizational

transformation. In addition to the mouse, his well-known

technological firsts include display editing, windows, crossfile

editing, outline processing, hypermedia, and groupware.

Engelbart’s work has never been easy to grasp. Throughout

the years he has been misunderstood, told he was “dead

wrong,” ridiculed, or simply ignored, which many say is to be

expected when you are consistently 20 years ahead of your

time. As each new wave of the computer revolution unfolds

and experience catches up with Engelbart’s vision, people

come to understand what he was trying to accomplish.

After 20 years directing his own lab at SRI and 11 years as

senior scientist, first at Tymshare and then at McDonnell

Douglas Corporation, Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Institute,

where he is working closely with industry and government

stakeholders to launch a collaborative implementation

of his work.

He has received countless awards, including the ACM

Turing Award, the National Medal of Technology, the 1987 PC

Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 1994 Price

Waterhouse Lifetime Achievement Award. His big-picture

vision, persistence, and pioneering breakthroughs have made

a significant impact on the past, present, and future of personal,

interpersonal, and organizational computing.

Douglas C. Engelbart

Imagine All Kinds of Things

What has kept me motivated and constantly pushing and advancing

the industry of computer development, is that I know it is just

the start.

My father died when I was nine. It was in the middle of the

Great Depression. We lived out in the country near Portland,

Oregon. This was the real country. I went to a small

school. I helped milk the cow and tend the chickens and

the garden. I played in the creek and in the forest behind our

little farm. It was there that I was able to imagine all kinds of

things.

I wanted to build an aircraft with a balloon and a propeller

driven by a bicycle peddling arrangement. I spent countless

hours unraveling burlap “Gunny” sacks; I would tie all

the pieces together to make my own rope, for no practical

reason at all. In those days I dreamed of inventing.

Being a shy kid, I didn’t understand the social structures

going on in school. I was so shy that I could have a locker

next to someone for an entire year and not know or talk to

the person. I don’t know if I was motivated then. I think that

came along later, when I became engaged to be married. I

think that as I was growing up, the environment was shaping

the way I thought.

Source: Printed with permission from Douglas Engelbart and Bootstrap

Institute.

After graduating from high school in 1942, I went on to

study electrical engineering at Oregon State University. After

two years I was drafted into the Navy during World War II. I

trained for a year as an electronic/radar technician and then

served for a year in the Philippines. That was certainly an education

for a country boy. From working with radar, I learned

that you could display information on a screen. This information

stayed with me, and I realized later that if radar equipment

can do that, so could a computer.

After receiving my degree in electrical engineering in

1948, I settled on the San Francisco Peninsula as an electrical

engineer at NACA Ames Laboratory, the forerunner of NASA.

This was when my life’s mission started to develop.

After several years there, I became engaged to marry a

dream girl. Things were becoming important, so it was time

to take my job more seriously. The next day, as I was driving

to work, I visualized my expected career as a long hallway

with nothing in it—it just went on and on. With nothing in

the hall, it became clear to me that I had no real career goals.

After thinking for a half an hour, I had an idea. I decided that

I would create a career that maximizes its benefit to humanity.

Now that I had decided on the focus of my career and

what I was going to pursue, the next question was, “What was

I going to do specifically?”

After three months, I concluded that organizing this great

new career goal would create many complex problems for

me, and I instantly realized that all of humanity would face

challenges whose complexity and urgency would be increasing

exponentially as society kept growing. I knew that these

problems must be solved efficiently. I had hit the nail on the

head. I would help people by finding a way to help them solve

their complex problems (“augmenting the human intellect”).

These big complex problems can only be solved by collective

effort, so it will be very important to improve our collective

capability for dealing with complex, urgent problems.

In 1951, I read a book called Giant Brains, or Machines

That Think by Edmund C. Berkely and it seemed to open

up a whole new path of knowledge. After thinking about it

for several months, I decided computers would make a good

lifetime focus. In those days, computers were called “magic

brains.”

As an electrical engineer, especially one trained to maintain

radar equipment, I knew how electronics could put things

on the screen. I knew if a computer could punch cards and

print paper, then radar-like circuitry could let a computer print

on a screen, and if radar equipment could respond instantly

to an operator pushing buttons, then so could a computer,

and if radar equipment could respond instantly to an operator

pushing buttons, then so could a computer. I envisioned

people sitting down in front of a screen and computers helping

them solve their problems.

Computers were scarce then. In fact, I believe that there

were just two in the country. I decided to get a graduate degree

at the University of California at Berkeley, where they

were at least building one computer. It was an uphill climb.

My idea of “augmenting the human intellect,” was not easily

received. It was new and as with many new ideas, people

were scared to go against what they knew. The turning point

was 1963, when my research team and I were actively working

towards problem-solvers using computer-aided working

stations to augment their efforts. Some sort of device to move

around the screen was needed. Thus the mouse was born.

We next moved on to building our own computerized

working system for our research group to use. It could do

word processing, e-mail, programming, etc., and provided

much more flexible linking than even what the WWW (Worldwide

Web) does today. Then on to our involvement in the

emergence and use of the Internet, initially called the Arpanet

by Arpa, which involved the interlinking of computers.

What has kept me motivated and constantly pushing and

advancing the industry is that I know it is just the start. Society

is constantly advancing and changing. Problems are becoming

more and more complex, and technology has to keep

up with these changes. There’s a lag time for people accepting

new ideas. Although I have been working at “augmenting

human intellect” for the last 50 years, I know that technology

development is still at the beginning stages and there is so

much to do, so my mission is just beginning.