Over 1,000 computer and engineering scientists gathered for the 90-minute presentation, watching as Engelbart introduced a working system with many of the computer concepts and tools we use today.
His demonstration included the use of word processing, hypertext, shared screen collaboration, multiple windows, on-screen video teleconferencing and — perhaps most famously — what he called the “computer mouse” because the cord looked like a tail.
The audience had never seen anything like it.
Using computers to solve world problems
Early in his career, Engelbart decided that his life’s work would focus on solving humanity’s problems. He recognized that computers could not only help with that work, but also accelerate it.
At the time, computers solved complex mathematical equations and ran systems based on punch cards. Ordinary people rarely used them, and no one had them in their homes.
Engelbart’s revolutionary ideas changed all of that. He envisioned computers as communication tools that could help people learn, collaborate and tackle complex problems.
“— Douglas Engelbart, 1961
Human beings face ever more complex and urgent problems, and their effectiveness in dealing with these problems is a matter that is critical to the stability and continued progress of society.”
Portland and beyond
Engelbart grew up on a small farm in Southeast Portland where his father operated a radio store.
He graduated from Franklin High School in 1942 and enrolled at Oregon State College, now called Oregon State University, to study electrical engineering.
When World War II interrupted his studies, he spent two years working as a Navy radio and radar technician in the Philippines.
In a 1986 oral history, Engelbart said the radar training was critical to his later work: “I knew about screens, and how you could use the electronics to shape symbols from any kind of information you had. If there was information that could otherwise go to a card punch or a computer printer, you could convert that to any kind of symbology you wanted on the screen. That just all came from the radar training.”
After the war, he returned to his studies, graduating from OSU in 1948, and would go on to earn a Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley. By 1959, he founded and directed the Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute, where he put his plans into action.
His seminal paper “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” outlined innovative ways of manipulating and viewing information, while also sharing it over a network, and allowing multiple people to work together.
“— "Augmenting Human Intellect, Conceptual Framework." Douglas Engelbart, 1962
The conceptual framework we seek must orient us toward ... using modern technology to give direct aid to an individual in comprehending complex situations, isolating the significant factors and solving problems.”
With his team at SRI, Englebert built a user-friendly hardware and software computer system known as the oN-Line System, or NLS, from the ground up. Its ability to link several users that could work together in real-time formed a proto-intranet.
Father of computer mouse — and much more
In front of 1,000 people, Engelbart unveiled the NLS at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.
Using a 22-foot-high film screen he borrowed from NASA, he projected his computer display so the audience could see what he was doing.
Using a computer mouse, he manipulated text on screen. He typed, deleted, copied and pasted, and moved words around on the page while also resizing windows and hyperlinking between texts.
He then linked in colleagues in another building, putting their live image on the screen in what we know today as video conferencing.
The audience gave him a standing ovation.
For some perspective, in 1968, most people did mathematical calculations on slide rulers. The public wouldn’t be able to buy handheld calculators for another two years.
Engelbart expected his presentation to kick off a new era of computing, attracting talented new engineers to his program. That didn’t happen.
For the next two decades, Engelbart continued his work at the Stanford Research Institute, now called SRI International. While there, he played a key role in the development of ARPANET, the network that helped set the framework for the Intranet.
Engelbart earned more than 40 awards throughout his lifetime, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize and several honorary degrees, including a doctorate from his alma mater, Oregon State University.
Engelbart died in 2013.
Today, Engelbart’s demo is widely recognized as one of the most important events in computer history.