Douglas Engelbart in a Flow of Inspirations

Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925-2013) is cited most prominently for his 1968 “Mother of All Demos”. He introduced his team’s research program by using of an early time-sharing computer system, what he called an “oN-Line System” (NLS), that used a “mouse” to support human interaction with the computer. For example, as you can see from his demonstration, he showed his audience how he could cut and paste words he highlighted with his mouse and how he could create a shopping list and so on. He was decades ahead of his time.

Douglas Engelbart’s NLS – History Computer

The mouse was one concrete invention that arose from his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center – later called the Augmentation Research Center –  based at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where he and a small group of colleagues began developing the NLS. This was in line with his focus on the use of computing to complement human intelligence, what he called “augmented intelligence” rather than artificial intelligence (AI). He credited Vannevar Bush for inspiring his vision, such as through Bush’s paper ‘As We May Think’. When he visited the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2004, he told us about how a member of his team thought the device they were using looked like a mouse, with tail and all, so they used that term as a placeholder until they came up with a proper name for it. The mouse stuck.

Just as Engelbart was inspired by Bush, Engelbart inspired many others, such as Ted Nelson (1987), who coined the concept of hypertext and his visionary work on the Xanadu project. Ted was with us at the OII in 2004 and helped host Doug Engelbart’s visit. The concept of hypertext was clearly an influence on the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland. The Web’s development in the open innovation culture of CERN has been critical to countless other developments of the Internet and Web and related digital media (Dutton 2013: 9-10).

Arthur Bullard photo of Bill Dutton, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson in 2004, courtesy of the OII

Many colleagues are beginning to document and archive the course of developments and their interrelationships in the short but incredible history of information and communication technologies (ICT) like the internet and web, such as the Engelbart Archive and the UK’s Archive for IT, as one I have only begun to follow more closely. It may be too early, but perhaps we can someday begin to track the course of innovations in Internet studies as well, as I began to describe in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Dutton 2013).

References

Dutton, W. H. (2013; 2014 paperback) (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, T. (1987), Literary Machines. Swathmore PA: Mindful.

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