October 17, 2017
New Old Stuff
Most of us use digital technology every day and don’t know the history of it. Tech history isn’t exactly riveting, so I understand that. There are no great naval battles for the development of the microprocessor, and nobody deposed an emperor to bring us OLED technology. But it isn’t all boring. Or it isn’t boring if you look at how far back some of the technology we use today goes. To give a good example of this, I’m going to take you all the way back to the old days, digitally speaking, of 1968. Led Zeppelin had just formed, the Firebird was a brand-new car model, and a guy named Douglas Englebart was about to blow the socks off everybody at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco.
A Guy Named Vannevar and Human Augmentation
Before I dive into exactly what he did to blow people’s minds, we need a little background on Englebart and what he wanted to do. Douglas Englebart fought in World War II and was an engineer and inventor. While stationed as a radar operator in the Philippines, Englebart read an article written by Vannevar Bush where he envisioned using microfiche to augment human memory and work as a collaborative machine that allowed multiple people to work together simultaneously. Englebart decided that was going to be his goal. He was going to figure out how to do this. After the war, he ended up at Stanford University and helped found the Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute. He and his team began working on ways to use computers to help augment human memory and allow for collaboration on work projects. In 1968, they decided they had enough to show everybody.
The Mother of All Demos
So what exactly did Englebart show these folks? He showed them the future. On stage at the conference, he had set up a workstation for a computer system he called the oNLine-System, or NLS. There was also a projector displaying what was on the screen of this workstation as well as a live feed from his lab in Menlo Park, 48 miles away. The workstation had a mouse, which was something brand-new at the time. It also had a graphical user interface, something else brand-new. It had a text editor, again, something else no one had ever seen. He got up and gave a description of his team’s work, and then he told his team in Menlo Park to start editing the document. And lo and behold, the document was being edited from 48 miles away in real time on his screen in San Francisco! This wasn’t just a cool application of existing technology. This was the digital age’s moon landing. No one had ever done anything like this. He then demonstrated that you could link words in the text to other documents that could be shared over the network. That’s hypertext, the basis for webpages today. He asked his team to resize the window they were working on, and they did. That’s something it took Apple another 15 years to implement. He had the team draw images, something else brand-new. Basically, every part of what we consider the modern personal computing experience was invented by Englebart and his team and displayed during what came to be called the Mother of All Demos.
When Englebart and his team concluded the demonstration, he was greeted with a standing ovation. One attendee described it as “being dropped into the future.” Previously, a lot of computer scientists had been concerned with how to make computers smarter so they could do things like better model a nuclear blast or become artificially intelligent. Englebart was one of the few people who thought we could use general-purpose computers to make our everyday lives better. Most people thought he was a crank. Until after the demo, and then he looked like a visionary.
After the demo, his team slowly started to drift apart, and a lot of them ended up at Xerox PARC, which is where a lot of the work to build what we think of as a PC took place. They took a lot of Englebart’s ideas and scaled the technology down to fit in a small form factor. One of the people who happened to tour PARC was Steve Jobs. He liked their PC idea so much that he decided to replicate it on Apple hardware. And thus the Macintosh was born. Then Windows showed up. And with that we were really off to the races. What we think of as the modern computing era was born on December 9, 1968, in that demo in San Francisco. To recap, here is what he showed off that had never been seen before:
- Graphical user interface
- Windows systems
- Text editor
- Network editable documents
- Function keys
- Instant messaging
That is basically a modern PC. It took the industry another 20 years to catch up to him. So the next time you sit down at your laptop and wiggle your mouse to wake up your computer, thank Douglas Englebart. Without him, we’d all probably still be using punch cards.