Douglas Engelbart, Father of the Computer Mouse, Dies at Age 88

Douglas C. Engelbart, founder of the Augmented Research Center (ARC) at SRI one of the inventors of the computer mouse and a computer visionary, has died at the age of 88. He also who foresaw the modern internet. His death was announced today by the Computer History Museum.

Douglas C. Engelbart with the mouse he invented

Douglas C. Engelbart with the mouse he invented

Engelbart, who served as a U.S. Navy electronic radar technician during World War II, began working at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the late 1950s. It was there that he worked on some of the first graphic user interface computers and the idea of the computer mouse. In 1970 he received a patent for the mouse, which was at the time a thick wooden device with two wheels and three buttons.

“This invention relates to visual display systems, and more particularly, to device for alternating the display at selected locations,” the patent, filed by Engelbart on June 21, 1967, reads. The mouse, of course, wasn’t popularized until Xerox PARC began experimenting with the device and then Apple began to ship the mouse with the Apple’s Lisa in 1983.

Englebart had said that he did not, however, come up with the name “mouse.” When asked in an interview with Stanford about the name in December 1986, Engelbart said, “No one can remember [who came up with the name]. In the lab, the very first one we built had the cord coming out the back. It wasn’t long before we realized that it would get in the way, and then we changed it to the front. But when it was trailing out the back like that, sitting there, just its funny little shape.”

But Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak believes Engelbart’s greatest contributions go way beyond the mouse.

The original computer mouse produced by Douglas Engelbart. (Flickr: John Chuang)

The original computer mouse produced by Douglas Engelbart. (Flickr: John Chuang)

“I have admired him so much. Everything we have in computers can be traced to his thinking,” Wozniak told ABC News on Wednesday afternoon. “To me, he is a god. He gets recognized for the mouse, but he really did an awful lot of incredible stuff for computer interfaces and networking.”

Engelbart worked on the ARPANET, a network of computers that preceded the Internet in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He also worked on the concept of “groupware,” or digital collaboration. In 1968 he was one of the first to demonstrate on-screen video teleconferencing.

“The networking ideas were even more significant than the mouse,” Wozniak said. “He did this way before the Internet. He was thinking about how computers could solve some of the main problems for mankind before many.”

A scientist and engineer who devoted himself to find ways to use computers to improve people’s lives, Engelbart developed his idea of Collective IQ — which also became the name of a blog he ran with his daughter, Christine — to describe what he called “a measure of how effective people are at addressing complex, urgent challenges collectively.”

The Computer History Museum summed up that idea in citing another quote from the late innovator: “The better we get at getting better, the faster we will get better.”

The idea was also one he promoted with the Bootstrap Institute, an organization he founded in 1990 that was later renamed the Doug Engelbart Institute.

As NPR reported back in 2009, for two decades, Engelbart was also part of the famed Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, where his work saw him play a part in the development of ARPANET, the network that helped set the framework for the Internet.

The announcement for the 1968 video

The announcement for the 1968 video

The Mother of All Demos.

On December 9, Engelbart and 17 researchers working with him at the ARC gave a 100-minute public demonstration of the NLS, which they had been working on since Engelbart’s original treatise was published in 1962. Around 1,000 computer professionals attended the presentation, which would turn out to be the first public debut of the computer mouse, hypertext, and screen sharing with built-in video conferencing. This was in 1968, some 16 years before the mouse would be popularized by Apple and Microsoft, and decades before the arrival of the World Wide Web and Skype.

In a video from 1968, Engelbart demonstrated the capabilities of not only the mouse — a rudimentary, two-wheeled device in those days — but also of the power of networked computing. Titled “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect,” the presentation gained a more informal name over the years: “The Mother of All Demos.”

Speaking before an audience of 1,000 leading technologists in San Francisco, Mr Engelbart, a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute, showed off a cubic device with two rolling discs called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system”.

It was the mouse’s public debut.

Mr Engelbart then summoned, in real-time, the image and voice of a colleague nearly 50 kilometres away. That was the first video conference.

Douglas Engelbart in 1968 video

Douglas Engelbart in 1968 video

He also explained a theory of how pages of information could be tied together using text-based links, an idea that would later form the bedrock of the internet’s architecture.

In the demonstration, Engelbart ran through concepts and practices that are common today, including “hypertext, shared screen collaboration, multiple windows, on-screen video teleconferencing, and the mouse as an input device,” the Computer History Museum says.

“This demo embodied Engelbart’s lifelong commitment to solving humanity’s urgent problems by using computers as tools to improve communication and collaboration between people,” according to the museum.

The ARC was funded by DARPA, NASA, and the USAF and the ARC later became one of first nodes of the ARPANET, the precursor of the internet. The first permanent ARPANET link was between the Interface Message Processor (one of the first packet-switched routers) at UCLA and the IMP at SRI. ARC, still headed by Engelbart, then became the first Network Information Center (NIC).

At a time when computing was largely pursued by government researchers or hobbyists with a countercultural bent, Mr Engelbart never sought or enjoyed the explosive wealth that would later become synonymous with Silicon Valley success.

He never received any royalties for the mouse, for instance, which SRI patented and later licensed to Apple Computer.

By 2000, Mr Engelbart had won prestigious accolades including the National Medal of Technology and the Turing Award.

He lived in comfort in Atherton, a leafy suburb near Stanford University.

At the same time, he wrestled with his fade into obscurity even as technology entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates built fortunes off of the personal computer and became celebrity billionaires by realizing some of his early ideas.

In 2005, he told Tom Foremski, a technology journalist, that he felt the last two decades of his life had been a “failure” because he could not receive funding for his research or “engage anybody in a dialogue”.

Video here:


Early years

Douglas Carl Engelbart was born on January 30, 1925 in Portland to a radio repairman father and a homemaker mother.

He enrolled at Oregon State University, but was drafted into the US Navy and shipped to the Pacific before he could graduate.

He resolved to change the world as a computer scientist after coming across a 1945 article by Vannevar Bush, the head of the US Office of Scientific Research, while scouring a Red Cross library in a native hut in the Philippines, he told an interviewer years later.

After returning to the US to complete his degree, Mr Engelbart took a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, after Stanford declined to hire him because his research seemed too removed from practical applications.

He took a job at SRI in 1957, and by the early-1960s Mr Engelbart led a team which had begun to seriously investigate tools for interactive computing.

After coming back from a computer graphics conference in 1961, Mr Engelbart sketched a design and tasked Bill English, an engineering colleague, to carve a prototype out of wood.

Mr Engelbart’s team considered other designs, including a device that would be affixed to the underside of a table and controlled by the knee, but the desktop mouse won out.

SRI would later license the technology for $40,000 to Apple, which released the first commercial mouse with its Lisa computer in 1983.

By the late 1970s, Mr Engelbart’s research group was acquired by a company called Tymshare, and he struggled to secure funding for his work or return to the same heights of influence.

In his later years he founded a management seminar program called the Bootstrap Institute with his daughter Christina.

He is survived by Karen O’Leary Engelbart, his second wife, and four children: Gerda, Diana, Christina and Norman. His wife Ballard died in 1997.

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