In a single 90 minute presentation, Douglas Englebart showcased technologies that would eventually fin their way into nearly every computer you’ve ever used. And he did it in 1968.
Featuring Tom Merritt.
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In 1944, General Douglas MacArthur waded ashore at Leyte in the Philippines, two years later after the end of the war, a young US Navy radio and radar technician sat in a hut in Leyte reading an old issue of The Atlantic magazine.
An article called “As We May Think,” by engineer Vanevar Bush caught his eye. Bush was concerned that war, which had consumed most of the first half of the century, had led science to focus on destruction instead of understanding. He believed that increased access to knowledge could change that. And he laid out his vision for something he called the memex.
The technology he described is not impressive to us today. Ultra-high resolution microfilm, viewing screens, automatic typewriters and electromechanical controls. But the concepts probably sound more familiar.
Take this for example. Bush wrote: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.” Pretty good description of Wikipedia if you ask me. Or Google. Or the internet itself. Other parts of Bush’s essay describe versions of what we’d call file systems, speech recognition and hypertext.
But the overriding idea was to take the information explosion of the 20th century and use technology to make it accessible to all, thus increasing human understanding and bettering the world.
That’s the mission statement of pretty much every tech company to come out of silicon valley.
But let’s get back to that radio engineer sitting in that hut in Leyte reading Bush’s essay. That article inspired that engineer to create technology that not only fulfilled Bush’s dreams but took them further. That radio engineer was named Douglas Englebart. And he would go on to demonstrate a desktop computer system that had a word processor, hypertext, a mouse, graphics, video conferencing and even collaborative editing. So many of the bedrock elements of the personal computer that we’re going to spend multiple episodes talking about each one. And Engelbart did it in a demo that would set the template for how every huge tech company: Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, Facebook, all of them, unveiled their biggest products.
All of that, from an attempt to embody Bush’s dreams, in one demo. In 1968.
Let’s help you Know A Little More about the Mother of All Demos.
It’s 1950. Now I don’t know if Mona Lisa by Nat King Cole was playing on the radio when Doug Engelbart proposed. But I do know she said yes.
That engagement got Engelbart thinking. He needed some goals beyond just “getting married and living happily ever after.” He decided he wanted to focus his career on making the world a better place. To do that you needed people to get organized on a grand scale, and to make that easier you could probably use computers.
That old idea of the memex by Vanevar Bush seemed like a good way to do that. You know. If it was real. By 1957, Engelbart had got a job at the Stanford Research Institute or SRI in Menlo Park, California, and by 1962 he had produced a report called Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, which laid out his plan for achieving Bush’s concepts in reality.
The US Advanced Research Project Agency, ARPA, gave him funding and he started the Augmentation Research Center, the ARC. They developed the oN-Line System or NLS.
Now, the computing community of the time considered Engelbart’s ideas far-fetched. Computers were great but the idea that they could bring about world peace or whatever Engelbert was preaching, frankly made him sound like a crackpot to some. Certainly he had smart people working on interesting things, but nothing practical right?
By 1968 the NLS was far enough along that the team felt like maybe it was ready to show the public. It was ARPA director Robert Taylor who urged Engelbart to do a demo of NLS during the Fall Joint Computer Conference put on by the Association for Computing Machinery and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers aka the ACM and IEEE.
The 90-minute talk was scheduled for December 9th under the title “A research center for augmenting human intellect”.
They set up an NLS workstation in San Francisco’s Civic Center auditorium. But it would need to connect to the computers back at Stanford 30 miles away. So they used two 1200 baud modems- blistering fast for the time- to connect to the the SDS-940 computer at SRI.The display was projected on a 22-foot screen so the audience could see it. Two microwave links let them show video of what was going on at the lab in Stanford. Stewart Brand, the editor of the brand new Whole Earth Catalog was the camera operator in the lab.
It was a lot of technology to make a compelling demo to win over a skeptical crowd.
And Engelbart began with an apology.
“I hope you’ll go along with this unusual setting … it’ll all go very interesting… I think.”
He then began the demo by typing a few words on the screen, literally the word “word” several times. Then without fanfare, brought what we now would call a mouse cursor up into view and copied and pasted a few words. Then he saved it as a file, got prompted to choose a file name, he chose “sample file,” and well, he was demonstrating a Word Processor. And to us it’s a very barebones word processor. But to a crowd of people used to working with teletypes not monitors…it’s mind blowing.
He moves from revelation to revelation without fanfare.
“So here’s what I drew with a picture drawing capability. Here is a slight map, if I start from work and here’s the route I seem to have to go to; to pick up all the materials. And that’s my plan for getting home tonight but if I want to I can say, the library, what am I supposed to pick up there? I can just point to that and oh, I see, overdue books and all.”
Engelbart pulled up a drawing with a line showing points of travel. He clicked on library and got a note telling him he had overdue books. He has linked text in a graphic. In 1968. Links!
“Then I’m going to jump to a link. Here is the link. It says you want to go to statement ‘A’”
There’s a demo of Hypertext
“Okay, to talk about control devices, we’ll use this overhead camera shot, where you can see the devices that I’m using. I use three and they’re not all standard. We have a plain device called a mouse.”
And now he’s properly showed off the Mouse
“I don’t know why we call it a mouse, sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it.”
“So, I’m going to establish a collaborative mode between me and another terminal. Bill Paxton’s at a terminal back at SRI ”
Oh and how about some Real-time Collaborative editing. Long before Google Docs. Heck, before Larry And Sergey were even born.
“Now we’re connected audio, you can see my work, you can point out at it and I can see your face, we can talk. You’re silent.
What do you want me to say?
There’s nobody here but a large audience, Bill.”
Yeah. He demoed Video Conferencing too.
And then one more thing
“And our forthcoming involvement is this __ computer network, the experimental network that’s going to come into being in its first form in about a year and end up sometime later with some 20 experimental computers in the network.”
The Internet. That thing the ARPA folks who funded Engerlbart were working on. He had a hand in that too.
“we have a full office which is equipped like this with this type of a console that we’re very excited about. We invite you to come too.”
You even got to try it out yourself. Suffice to say Engelbart got a standing ovation.
And his innovations were immediately put into active use and the NLS became the desktop computer of the 1970s….Doesn’t sound right does it? That’s because it’s not.
It was an impressive demo. Nobody disagreed with that. But it was too far out there. Sorry. I have to get back to making my physical teletype work. Maybe I’ll get one of those glass teletypes, the monitors, but the rest of this? Well it just isn’t practical is it?
Engelbart kept plugging away but his team slowly dispersed. Several of them ended up at Xerox in its nearby Palo Alto Research Center or Xerox PARC.
By 1973, a lot of what Engelbart showed had been refined and integrated into the Xerox Alto, a fully functioning personal computer. No connection to a mainframe needed.
Turnabout is fair play though. The Xerox Alto didn’t revolutionize things either. Its extension of Bush and Engerlbart’s ideas were licensed sometimes “borrowed” by Steve Jobs at Apple and Bill Gates at Microsoft. In fact Apple licensed patents for the mouse from SRI for something like $40,000.
Apple and Microsoft became the leaders of the PC revolution. They sold people devices that let everyone do in the 1980s, what Engelbart described back in 1968.
“We start by building an instrument that we can sit at and work during our day, to organize the kind of working information we need as a task force, developing systems. We need to write our specifications, our plans, our programs, our user’s guides, our documentation, our reports and even our proposals.”
But the world didn’t forget Doug Engelbart. He was frequently credited with inventing the mouse and hypertext.
And his 1968 demo remained legendary.
Steven Levy wrote a book in 1994 about the history of the Macintosh Computer called “Insanely Great.” He credited Engelbart with kicking off the chain of developments that led to the Mac. And in writing about that 1968 conference, Levy described Engelbart as “a calming voice from Mission Control as the truly final frontier whizzed before their eyes. It was the mother of all demos.”
And that’s what folks call it today.
In every major tech reveal you can remember, there’s a nod to its Mother. Sure, the crowds are livelier and the speakers are a little more animated but at their core, they’re all just paying homage to Engelbart.
And you are too.
If you’re using a computer or even a phone, you’re using a device built on the designs that came out of Engelbart’s lab and developed by people inspired by how they worked.
We’re going to do full episodes that focus on just some of the major products this demo inspired. Clicked on a link lately? You used Hypertext. And when you clicked you probably used a mouse. Did you meet on Zoom or Teams or even Face Time? You probably used some kind of video conferencing lately. I bet you used a word processor. I not only used one to write this episode but took advantage of collaborative editing so our producers and editors could work on it too. Englebart showed off all of that, Hypertext, the mouse, word processing, video conferencing and collaborative editing, long before they were the commonplace tools we use today. We’re going to dive in and tell you those stories as well.
But for now, I hope you Know A Little More about the Mother of All Demos.
Know A Little More is researched, written and hosted by me, Tom Merritt. Editing and production provided by Anthony Lemos in conjunction with Will Sattelberg and Dog and Pony Show Audio. It’s issued under a Creative Commons Share Attribution 4.0 International License.