On December 9, 1968 Dr. Douglas Engelbart stepped on to a stage at Fall Joint Computer Conference held in the convention center at Civic Center in San Francisco and demonstrated a personal computer with what would later be called a mouse. It wasn’t just a computer with a mouse that captivated the audience, it was the demonstration of what it could do that overwhelmed the audience; rudimentary windows, the editing of text and graphics, and what would later be called hyperlinking.
No doubt it was Doug Engelbart’s low key matter of fact manner and his intellectual honesty about the things he really cares about, managing information with technology, that won the day and the technologies he pioneered would later become the mainstay of modern technology as we know it.
Engelbart is no Steve Jobs on stage (Jobs was 13 years old at the time) but he does have a knack for presenting technology in a day-in-the-life style that makes it easy to understand by novices and experts alike. His primary interest was and remains how we use technology to manage the avalanche of information that is the modern world as opposed to the solution in search of a problem that many inventors embrace these days.
His ideas and creations were so far ahead of their time that many of his patents had expired by the time they became commercial standards. The mouse is just one but perhaps the most illustrative example, Engelbart received a patent for the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System” in 1970 based on a sketch he made in 1961. Engelbart received no royalties or licenses for what has become the indispensable input device for modern computers. Having listened to his lectures it is clear that Engelbart never was in it for the money, although I find it somewhat disheartening that this man is not a household name considering his impact on what we are doing right now (reading hyperlinked text on a computer navigated by a mouse) relies so heavily on his contributions.
I actually met Doug Engelbart at an event once. At the time he was probably around 80 years old but his intellect was clearly razor sharp yet still displaying the humility that makes the man so endearing. I remember being star struck at the thought of meeting this man, all I could muster was a simple “thank you for everything you have done” comment. Seriously, I simply couldn’t think of anything else to say and feared saying something monumentally stupid to someone who will be remembered as one of the greatest among many greats.