Douglas Engelbart

The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing. The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate.
Douglas Engelbart

Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013)
Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925-2013)

The first working hypertext system, named NLS, or the “oN-Line System”, was developed in the early 1960s by the prominent American inventor and computer pioneer Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925-2013). In fact, NLS was a revolutionary computer collaboration system that was the first to employ the practical use of hypertext links, the mouse, raster-scan video monitors, information organized by relevance, screen windowing, presentation programs, and other modern computing concepts.

NLS system of Douglas Engelbart
In the late summer of 1945, at the very end of World War II, a young 20 years old US Navy radar technician in the Philippines—Douglas Engelbart, went to the local Red Cross library and picked up a copy of the Atlantic Monthly journal from July 1945. There he stumbled upon an interesting article, namely Vannevar Bush‘s work As We May Think, presenting his “memex” automated library system. The young Douglas was profoundly influenced by Bush’s vision of the future of information technology.

In the 1950s Engelbart started developing Bush’s ideas, extending them to the broader field of something, which he will later on call Augmenting Human Intellect. In 1957 he joined the Stanford Research Institute and in 1962 started work on Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. It was a project to develop computer tools to augment human capabilities, for “boosting mankind’s capability for coping with complex, urgent problems”. In October 1962, Engelbart published his own version of Bush’s vision, describing an advanced electronic information system in the paper “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” (see the paper Augmenting Human Intellect), prepared for the Air Force Office Of Scientific Research and Development.

In this article he mentioned: Most of the structuring forms I’ll show you stem from the simple capability of being able to establish arbitrary linkages between different substructures, and of directing the computer subsequently to display a set of linked substructures with any relative positioning we might designate among the different substructures. You can designate as many different kinds of links as you wish, so that you can specify different display or manipulative treatment for the different types.

Engelbart demonstrated creating links between three sample sentences, mentioning: “Here is one standard portrayal, for which I have established a computer process to do the structuring automatically on the basis of the interword links.”…
He aimed at a term with the light pen and hit a few strokes on the keyset, and the old text jumped farther out of the way and the definition appeared above the diagram, with the defined term brighter than the rest of the diagram. And he showed you also how you could link secondary phrases (or sentences) to parts of the statement for more detailed description. These secondary substructures wouldn’t appear when you normally viewed the statement, but could be brought in by simple request if you wanted closer study…
It proves to be terrifically useful to be able to work easily with statements that represent more sophisticated and complex concepts. Sort of like being able to use structural members that are lighter and stronger—it gives you new freedom in building structures…

In the same 1962, Engelbart hired a small team of researchers to develop a demonstration hyper collaborative knowledge environment system called NLS (for oNLine System), first published (see the article for NLS and mouse) and publicly demonstrated in 1968. The NLS system is difficult to describe since it is a very richly comprehensive environment of tools and practices for facilitating any scale of heavy knowledge work. Engelbart used NLS for all its own knowledge work, from drafting, publishing, email, shared screen collaborative viewing and editing, document cataloging, project management, shared address book, and all source code development and maintenance—all in an integrated hyper groupware environment, filled with many special features for high-performance work.

For example, the user can create a link to any paragraph or line of code or email paragraph, and he can see when paragraphs and lines of code were last edited and by whom, and even view a file filtered by the author since a certain date and time (as in why doesn’t the code work this morning, let’s see who was in there changing what when!), he can browse with outline views, drill down into the structure of a document or source code and fly around with a number of precision browsing features and custom viewing features, and edit the structure as well as the text, within and across files and application domains.

Engelbart continued to evolve NLS under real-world usage with a team of up to 47 researchers in his lab at SRI, cultivating a networked community of early customer IT pioneers via the newly formed ARPANET.

Mouse of Douglas Engelbart

Doug Engelbart's first mouse (source
Doug Engelbart’s first mouse (source

The now ubiquitous computer mouse was conceived of in the early 1960s by Douglas Engelbart as just a tiny piece of a much larger project, started in 1962, aimed at augmenting human intellect. At the time of the invention of the mouse, Engelbart had already been exploring possible ways for people to increase their capability to solve complex problems for almost a dozen years. Engelbart and William (Bill) English (a colleague of Engelbart and the maker of the mouse) envisioned problem-solvers using computer-aided working stations to augment their efforts. They required the ability to interact with information displays using some sort of device to move a cursor around the screen. There were several devices then in use or being considered for use: the light pen, joysticks, etc. The authors however were looking for the best and the most efficient device.
They approached NASA in 1966, and said, let’s test them, and determine the answer once-and-for-all. With NASA funding, the team developed a set of simple tasks and timed a group of volunteers in doing those tasks with the various devices. For example, the computer would generate an object in a random position on the screen, and a cursor somewhere else. They timed how long it took the users to move the cursor to the object. It quickly became clear that the mouse out-performed all the others. Devices like the light pen simply took too much time, by repeatedly requiring the user to pick up the pointer and reach all the way to the screen, which was very tiresome.

The knee-mouse of Engelbart
The knee-mouse of Engelbart

In 1964, the first prototype of the computer mouse was made to use with a graphical user interface (GUI) “windows”. The original mouse had the cord in the front, but they quickly moved it to the back end to get it out of the way. It was a simple mechanical device with two perpendicularly mounted discs on the bottom. You could tilt or rock the mouse to draw perfectly straight horizontal or vertical lines. Engelbart applied for a patent in 1967 and received it as an assignor of SRI for the wooden shell with two metal wheels (see U.S. Patent No. 3541541) in 1970, describing it in the patent application as an “X-Y position indicator for a display system.” “It was nicknamed the mouse because the tail came out the end,” Engelbart revealed about his invention. His version of windows and GUI was not considered patentable (no software patents were issued at that time), but Engelbart has over 45 other patents to his name.

In early 1967 Engelbart and Bill English published a paper, discussing this test and also referred to an interesting “knee-control” device that appeared promising. That device was based on Engelbart’s observation that the human foot was a pretty sensitive controller of the gas pedal in cars. They discovered that the knee offered even better control at slight movements in all directions. In tests, it outperformed the mouse by a small margin. A sample device was cooked up by Engelbart’s lab for moving the cursor on the display screen (see the nearby photo).

Bill English, Engelbart's lead engineer, testing the first mouse and keypad (source
Bill English, Engelbart’s lead engineer, testing the first mouse and keypad (source

After Engelbart got the idea, he hired Bill English (see the nearby photo), who had been working in another lab at SRI, to make the hardware design. Later on, the group was joined by Jeff Rulifson, who made a big difference in the quality of the software involved.

The first production workstation and mouse were made in 1967 (see the lower photo). The mouse had a plastic casing on a metal base plate. Although the casing was originally designed for the cord to be attached to the wrist side of the device, it is seen here with the cord coming out from the other end.

The first production workstation and mouse (source
The first production workstation and mouse (source

The mouse, as well as other advanced technologies, were demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart in the famous demonstration of experimental computer technologies on 9 December 1968. In the so-called, The Mother of All Demos Engelbart featured the introduction of the computer mouse, video conferencing, teleconferencing, email, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, and a collaborative real-time editor.

It is interesting, that the inventor of one of the most popular computer interface devices ever in the world didn’t receive any royalties for his mouse invention. As he received the patent as an assignor of SRI, SRI licensed it to Apple for something like $40000, which was ridiculous. Engelbart received nothing!

The first cordless mouse was shipped in September 1984, with the Metaphor computer of David Liddle and Donald Massaro, former Xerox PARC engineers. The computer also had a cordless keyboard and functional keypad. The mouse was built for Metaphor by Logitech and used infrared (IR) signals to transmit mouse data to the computer. The problem with such devices that used IR technology was that, in order to work, they needed a clear line of sight between the mouse and the computer’s receiver, a potential problem on a cluttered desk. Hence, cordless mice did not get traction until this problem was solved. This was accomplished by replacing IR with radio frequency (RF) communications.