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.