Computer pioneer Doug Engelbart of Atherton dies at 88

Atherton resident invented the mouse and the concept of hyperlinking

The fellowship of high-technology pioneers lost another giant Tuesday with the death of Atherton resident Douglas Engelbart.

Credited with inventing the computer mouse and coming up with concepts such as point-and-click and hypertext links, Mr. Engelbart interceded on behalf of ordinary people to extend the power of computing far and wide.

"His work touches the lives of nearly everyone in the world -- in business, education, entertainment and our daily lives," Curtis Carlson, president and CEO of SRI International, said at a December 2000 ceremony in Washington, D.C., honoring Mr. Engelbart with the National Medal of Technology.

Mr. Engelbart died July 2 at his Atherton home at the age of 88, according to the New York Times.

In the 1960s, SRI was known as the Stanford Research Institute and Mr. Engelbart was leading a team that "crafted a set of tools that could enable people and organizations to harness the growing power of computers to meet the exploding challenges of the coming times," Almanac staff writer Marion Softky wrote in a February 2001 cover story.

For anyone born after 1970, it may be hard to imagine but computer work used to be like driving from the back seat of a car. If you were writing a computer program, for example, you typed your code at a card-punch terminal and submitted a stack of cards with holes in them, the holes representing instructions to the computer.

You handed your cards, in the proper order, to an operator who placed the stack in a card-reading machine that read each card to check for errors. If there were none, your program was cleared to run and you came back later for results, usually in the form of a print out.

To improve or correct your program, you prepared new punch cards and resubmitted them. Depending on the demand for the computer at the time, you may have had to stand in line with your cards, listening to and/or watching the card reader monotonously checking the cards of the people ahead of you.

Enough of all that, Mr. Englebart and his team essentially said. Along with the mouse and hypertext, the group developed real-time text editing, integration of text and graphics in the same document, on-line journals, teleconferencing with a split screen, and technology that allowed people to collaborate on problems from different remote locations.

The turning point in peoples' vision for computers came on December 9, 1968, when Mr. Engelbart gave a big-screen demonstration on stage during a computer conference at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. For some 90 minutes, he used the mouse and a keyboard to edit text and move pictures around. He reorganized a grocery list, exchanged communications with co-workers at SRI in Menlo Park, showed photos of the people with whom he was communicating, and revised a document in tandem with a Menlo Park co-worker.

"Two thousand people gave him a standing ovation," Marion Softky wrote in 2001." And all at once people began to realize what computers could do."

Go to this link for a multi-part video recording of this demonstration.

"It was stunning. It really (woke) a lot of people up to a whole new way of thinking about computers -- not just as number crunchers," Bob Taylor of Woodside said for the Almanac story. Mr. Taylor won the Medal of Technology award the year before Mr. Engelbart and was recently named a fellow at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, a recognition that he shares with Mr. Engelbart.

It may have awakened the people in the room, but apparently not the industry as a whole. It was not until the 1980s that the first commercially available mouse appeared, by which time Mr. Engelbart's patent had expired, according to a 2004 interview with BusinessWeek cited in an obituary of Mr. Engelbart by Bloomberg News.


Like this comment
Posted by A friend
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 5, 2013 at 9:07 am

R.I.P Doug. You were a good, kind man who did incedible things for society. You will be missed but always remembered.

Like this comment
Posted by Charlie Bourne
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 5, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Doug was one of my E.E. professors at Cal; he had a great way of getting complex and abstract material across to his students. We both went to work at the Computer Techniques Lab at SRI in Menlo Park, and worked together on issues of national technical information systems, long before he was successful in getting any funding for his Augmented Human Intellect work. The 1968 FJCC demonstration that the article mentioned was a major project in itself, requiring microwave relays from SRI to a van on Skyline Blvd. and on to the conference hotel in San Francisco; that relay itself required an NSF grant. His later AHI project also supported my last collaborative effort with him, the development and demonstration in 1963 of the first online text and bibliographic search system; this "proof-of-concept" system made use of a computer console at SRI, the Q-32 air defense system computer at SDC in Santa Monica, leased telephone lines from SRI to SDC, and programs written by Len Chaitin at SRI and executed on the SDC time-shared computer.

The article did not have room to mention the work he did to develop and demonstrate real-time conference voting/display/feedback systems and computer component development (e.g., gas-tube shift registers, magnetic device shift registers).

He was one of the good ones.

Like this comment
Posted by Virginia Chang Kiraly
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jul 5, 2013 at 6:36 pm

RIP, Doug Engelbart. You were a visionary. Best of all, you were a kind and patient gentleman and friend. We will miss you!

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