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Oct 17, 2019

Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to cover a special moment in time. Picture this if you will. It’s 1968. A collection of some 1,000 of the finest minds in computing is sitting in the audience of the San Francisco Civic Center. They’re at a joint conference of the Association for Computing Machinery and the IEEE or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Fall Join Computer Conference in San Francisco. They’re waiting to see the a session called A research center for augmenting human intellect. Many had read Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” Atlantic article in 1946 that signified the turning point that inspired so many achievements over the previous 20 years. Many had witnessed the evolution from the mainframe to the transistorized computer to timesharing systems. The presenter for this session would be Douglas Carl Engelbart. ARPA had strongly recommended he come to finally make a public appearance. Director Bob Taylor in fact was somewhat adamant about it. The talk was six years in the making and ARPA and NASA were ready to see what they had been investing in. ARPA had funded his Augmentation Research Center Lab in SRI, or the Stanford Research Institute. The grad instigator J.C.R. Licklider had started the funding when ARPA was still called DARPA in 1963 based on a paper Engelbart published in 1962. But it had really been going since Engelbart got married in 1950 and realized computers could be used to improve human capabilities, to harness the collective intellect, to facilitate truly interactive computing and to ultimately make the world a better place. Englebart was 25. He’d been from Oregon where he got his Bachelors in 48 after serving in World War II as a radar tech. He then come to Berkely in 53 for is Masters, sating through 1955 to get his PhD. He ended up at Stanford’s SRI. There, he hired people like Don Andrews, Bill Paxton, Bill English, and Jeff Rulifson. And today Engelbart was ready to show the world what his team had been working on. The computer was called the oNLine System, or NLS. Bill English would direct things onsite. Because check this out, not all presenters were onsite on that day in 1968. Instead, some were at ARC in Menlo Park, 30 miles away. To be able to communicate onsite they used two 1200 baud modems connecting over a leased line to their office. But they would also use two microwave links. And that was for something crazy: video. The lights went dark. The OnLine Computer was projected onto a 22 foot high screen using an Eidophor video projector. Bill English would flip the screen up as the lights dimmed. The audience was expecting a tall, thin man to come out to present. Instead, they saw Doug Englebart on the screen in front of them. The one behind the camera, filming Engelbart, was Stewart Russel Brand, the infamous editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. It seems Englebart was involved in more than just computers. But people destined to change the world have always travelled in the same circles I supposed. Englebart’s face came up on the screen, streaming in from all those miles away. And the screen they would switch back and forth to. That was the Online System, or NLS for short. The camera would come in from above Englebart’s back and the video would be transposed with the text being entered on the screen. This was already crazy. But when you could see where he was typing, there was something… well, extra. He was using a pointing device in his right hand. This was the first demo of a computer mouse Which he had applied for a patent for in 1967. He called it that because it had a tail which was the cabe that connected the wooden contraption to the computer. Light pens had been used up to this point, but it was the first demonstration of a mouse and the team had actually considered mounting it under the desk and using a knee to move the pointer.But they decided that would just be too big a gap for normal people to imagine and that the mouse would be simpler. Engelbart also used a device we might think of more like a macro pad today. It was modeled after piano keys. We’d later move this type of functionality onto the keyboard using various keystrokes, F keys, and a keyboard and in the case of Apple, command keys. He then opened a document on his screen. Now, people didn’t do a lot of document editing in 1968. Really, computers were pretty much used for math at that point. At least, until that day. That document he opened. He used hyperlinks to access content. That was the first real demo of clickable hypertext. He also copied text in the document. And one of the most amazing aspects of the presentation was that you kinda’ felt like he was only giving you a small peak into what he had. You see, before the demo, they thought he was crazy. Many were probably only there to see a colossal failure of a demo. But instead they saw pure magic. Inspiration. Innovation. They saw text highlighted. They saw windows on screens that could be resized. They saw the power of computer networking. Video conferencing. A stoic Engelbart was clearly pleased with his creation. Bill Paxton and Jeff Rulifson were on the other side, helping with some of the text work. His style worked well with the audience, and of course, it’s easy to win over an audience when they have just been wowed by your tech. But more than that, his inspiration was so inspiring that you could feel it just watching the videos. All these decades later. can watching those videos. Engelbart and the team would receive a standing ovation. And to show it wasn’t smoke and mirrors, ARC let people actually touch the systems and Engelbart took questions. Many people involved would later look back as though it was an unfinished work. And it was. Andy van Dam would later say Everybody was blown away and thought it was absolutely fantastic and nothing else happened. There was almost no further impact. People thought it was too far out and they were still working on their physical teletypes, hadn't even migrated to glass teletypes yet. But that’s not really fair or telling the whole story. In 1969 we got the Mansfield Amendment - which slashed the military funding pure scientific research. After that, the budget was cut and the team began to disperse, as was happening with a lot of the government-backed research centers. Xerox was lucky enough to hire Bob Taylor, and many others immigrated to Xerox PARC, or Palo Alto Research Center, was able to take the concept and actually ship a device in 1973, although not as mass marketable yet as later devices would be. Xerox would ship the Alto in 1973. The Alto would be the machine that inspired the Mac and therefore Windows - so his ideas live on today. His own team got spun out of Stanford and sold, becoming Tymshare and then McDonnel Douglas. He continued to have more ideas but his concepts were rarely implemented at McDonnel Douglas so he finally left in 1986, starting the Bootstrapp Alliance, which he founded with his daughter. But he succeeded. He wanted to improve the plight of man and he did. Hypertext and movable screens directly influenced a young Alan Kay who was in the audience and was inspired to write Smalltalk. The Alto at Xerox also inspired Andy van Dam, who built the FRESS hypertext system based on many of the concepts from the talk as well. It also did multiple windows, version control on documents, intradocument hypertext linking, and more. But, it was hard to use. Users needed to know complex commands just to get into the GUI screens. He was also still really into minicomputers and timesharing, and kinda’ missed that the microcomputer revolution was about to hit hard. The hardware hacker movement that was going on all over the country, but most concentrated in the Bay Area, was about to start the long process of putting a computer, and now mobile device, in every home in the world. WIth smaller and smaller and faster chips, the era of the microcomputer would transition into the era of the client and server. And that was the research we were transitioning to as we moved into the 80s. Charles Irby was a presentter as well, being a designer of NLS. He would go on to lead the user interface design work on the Xerox star before founding a company then moving on to VP of development for General Magic, a senior leader at SGI and then the leader of the engineering team that developed the Nintendo 64. Bob Sproull was in the audience watching all this and would go on to help design the Xerox Alto, the first laser printer, and write the Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics before becoming a professor at Conegie Mellon and then ending up helping create Sun Microsystems Laboratories, becoming the director and helping design asuynchronous processors. Butler Lampson was also there, a found of Xerox PARC, where the Alto was built and co-creator of Ethernet. Bill Paxton (not the actor) would join him at PARC and later go on to be an early founder of Adobe. In 2000, Engelbart would receive the National Medal of Technology for his work. He also He got the Turing Award in 1997, the Locelace Medal in 2001. He would never lose his belief in the collective intelligence. He wrote Boosting Our Collective IQ in 1995 and it has Englebart passed away in 2013. He will forever be known as the inventor of the mouse. But he gave us more. He wanted to augment the capabilities of humans, allowing us to do more, rather than replace us with machines. This was in contrast to SAIL and the MIT AI Lab where they were just doing research for the sake of research. The video of his talk is on YouTube, so click on the links in the show notes if you’d like to access it and learn more about such a great innovator. He may not have brought a mass produced system to market, but as with Vanevar Bush’s article 20 years before, the research done is a turning point in history; a considerable milestone on the path to the gleaming world we now live in today. The NLS teaches us that while you might not achieve commercial success with years of research, if you are truly innovative, you might just change the world. Sometimes the two simply aren’t mutually exclusive. And when you’re working on a government grant, they really don’t have to be. So until next time, dare to be bold. Dare to change the world, and thank you for tuning in to yet another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re so lucky to have you. Have a great day!