Douglas Engelbart, who catapulted computing into the modern age in 1968 with a jaw-dropping and highly influential demo of graphical user interfaces, hyperlinks, collaborative computing, WYSIWYG text editing, shared-screen videoconferencing, and more, has died.
Engelbart passed away yesterday at his home in Atherton, Calif., according to a report in the New York Times. He was 88.
Christina Engelbart, Douglas’s daughter, confirmed the news on a popular listserv earlier today:
Very sorry to inform my father passed away in his sleep peacefully at home last night. His health had been deteriorating of late, and took turn for worse on the weekend. I will circle back around soon, for now just wanted to give you all advance notice and look forward to discussing your thoughts as I am a bit fuzzy at present.
Although Engelbart is often referred to as the inventor of the mouse, that’s a bit like saying Henry Ford was the inventor of the steering wheel. The mouse was a clever invention, but it was merely one component of a larger vision of how computers could increase human intelligence, or what Engelbart called our “collective IQ.”
At the time of his demo in December, 1968 — since referred to as the Mother of All Demos because of its scope and influence — computers were used primarily for computing and tabulating mostly numeric data.
Engelbart’s demo, at one stroke, showed how computers could become extensions of the human mind in many other ways, helping people work together on text, graphics, and high-order concepts. It was a demonstration of work done by Engelbart and other researchers in his lab at SRI, a legendary technology think tank and R&D lab.
According to Etan Ayalon, an entrepreneur who knew Engelbart, his greatest passion was “using computers to harness collective intelligence to address humanity’s most pressing challenges.”
Surprisingly, many of the concepts in that demo went on to become just as ubiquitous as the mouse. Onscreen windows, combined text and graphics on a single screen, computer outlining, version control, context-sensitive help, and hyperlinks are all traceable to the SRI lab’s work.
“Some people pooh-poohed him because they said nobody would spend hours in front of a screen,” joked Alan Kay, another highly influential computing pioneer, in a 2008 interview with VentureBeat.
See futurist Paul Saffo’s take on the influence of the “Mother of all demos” and the computer mouse, from a 2008 interview.
Engelbart received the National Medal of Technology in 2000 for his pioneering work in “creating the foundations of personal computing.”
Engelbart was not satisfied with the success of his vision, however. When I interviewed him in the late 1990s, he seemed disappointed that the computer industry had failed to live up to its promise of making people smarter and helping them work together better. Instead, he felt, a focus on “ease of use” had dumbed-down computing and prevented more sophisticated and powerful computing systems from taking off, simply because they took more time to learn.
The result, Engelbart told me, was that humanity was having a harder time than it should solving problems of great complexity, such as climate change or global poverty.
Regardless, Engelbart’s vision has had a wide impact. And his ideals and principles remain a shining example in the computer industry.
You can find the full version of Engelbart’s presenation here.
Additional reporting by Ricardo Bilton.
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