Celebrating Doug Engelbart's Vision
I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the seminal "Engelbart Demo" at Stanford University on December 9th, 2008. (If you've never seen it, here's a link to annotated sections of the video). Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium was packed. Doug, now 83 years old, received two standing ovations from an audience ranging in age from 14 to 90 year olds. Although Doug didn't say much to the crowd other than to say "Thank you. Thank you," he was overwhelmed by the accolades. Many of us chatted with him at the break and at the reception where he was in good spirits and a joy to speak to as always.
WHO WAS IN THE AUDIENCE for the 40th Anniversary Celebration?
Computing Pioneers. There were a number of
"old-timers" at the 40th anniversary – pioneers like my husband, Tom
Hagan, who had been in the audience for Engelbart's original 1968 Demo at the
Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) in San
Baby Boomers. There were also many baby boomers at the anniversary celebration. People like me who came of age in the late sixties and grew up with the computer industry – from punched cards and mainframes, through time-sharing, ARPAnet, minicomputers, the Internet, PCs, distributed object computing, the Web, e-commerce, service-oriented architecture, Web 2.0. Among the more notable among us were Alan Kay, Tim O'Reilly, and yours truly. Alan Kay closed the afternoon's program by reminiscing about being in the audience at the 1968 conference as a young computer science student. He said he was sick and running a 104-degree temperature and shivering with chills as he watched both Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad presentation and Doug Engelbart's Demo. Both presentations shaped his view of the world.
Many of us are "Engelbart groupies" – people who have believed in Doug's vision and have long recognized the power of the principles that he has tirelessly promulgated for more than four decades. What we all have in common is an optimistic view that humans can tackle complex challenges by harnessing and evolving computing and networking to create collective intelligence and knowledge.
The Younger Set. The audience also included a good number of younger entrepreneurs and geeks as well as students—many of whom had come out of curiosity to witness the replaying of an important seminal turning point in the history of computing and human society. Many of them came to see the world's first demonstration of a personal computer, mouse, and windows. I suspect they witnessed something even more seminal: a new way to think about accelerating innovation.
The half-day program was titled: "Douglas Engelbart and the Dawn of Interactive Computing," but, as several speakers pointed out, Doug's vision of interactive computing was only half of the story. The second half of the story was the Dawn of Harnessing Collective Intelligence.
THE "DEMO" Highlighted the First Half of Doug's Vision: Personal Interactive Computing and Collaborative Knowledge Work
As Bob Sproull said in his introductory comments, Doug's real innovation is that he predicted the future by demonstrating it. He could have delivered a paper, or given a compelling speech describing the future of collaborative computing and collective intelligence. Instead, he chose to provide living proof of what was possible and conceivable: a new way of working, using interactive, distributed computing and knowledge creation and sharing tools that he and his small band at SRI had invented.
In 1968, Doug presented his Demo live from San Francisco, his face and computer screen projected on a large video screen (another computer industry first!). Only those who have witnessed firsthand the rudimentary state of computing in the 60's (see below) could really appreciate how advanced and how risky this real-time demonstration was. My husband, Tom, commented that he sat in the audience with his heart in his mouth waiting for something to go wrong and was amazed that the original Demo was carried off without a hitch. Later in the 40th anniversary program, Bob English, one of Engelbart's original team of programmers, reminisced that the system had crashed during the original live Demo, but that he had anticipated the likelihood of that happening and had jury-rigged a work around so that the glitch was limited to 1/24th of a second and wasn't visible to the audience or noticed by Doug at the time (pretty impressive engineering—if only MS/Windows were that well-behaved!).
Doug was using an interactive video graphics terminal that was connected via a video (TV)-wide band link to a then state-of-the art SDS 940 minicomputer with 96 kilobytes of memory. The minicomputer was 40 miles away in Menlo Park, driving a stroke-drawing vector display at which a TV camera was aimed to create the video signal.
The software that he was demonstrating was a homegrown package called, NLS (for oNLine System), which was designed to support collaborative knowledge work, including interactive real-time editing of text and graphics, screen and cursor-sharing across a network, the use of multiple windows to show different perspectives, real-time video conferencing, and real-time audio conferencing. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.
Doug played the terminal like an organ using three sets of controls:
2) A Qwerty keyboard with some special command keys.
3) A five-finger keyset that he used to type command strings with his left hand, using "chords" of different key configurations to generate all the characters in the alphabet.
Doug's workstation also used foot pedals and a knee bar. He believed in engaging all of the senses and harnessing as many human talents as possible simultaneously.
All Photos Courteousy of the Douglas Engelbart Institute
Doug walked through a tour de force demonstration of creating, editing, and navigating a structured document with different open and collapsed views. He provided a humorous example of interactively editing and reorganizing a shopping list, including the ability to create and rearrange items into categories and attach them to a graphical map of the neighborhood, with each set of shopping items pinpointed on the map. He collaborated in discussing and editing a document with Bill Paxton in Menlo Park sharing the screen, his face visible in a video window on the screen, and engaging in a "fight" over who gets to control the cursor in a shared collaborative editing environment.