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Weekly Column

Out of School: Doug Engelbart's Experience Shows That Even the Best Technology Can Be Ignored If It Is Difficult to Classify

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

I spent an afternoon recently with Doug Engelbart, talking about making computing history and troubleshooting Doug's DSL line. Doug, for those who haven't heard of him, conceived of and then went on to invent much of what we value today in computing from the standpoint of the user. Networks, graphical computing, hypertext, the mouse -- Doug's the guy behind all of those in one way or another. He is best known as the inventor of the mouse, but his work goes far beyond that. Doug did most of this at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in Menlo Park, CA. And nearly all of those innovations first came to him during a momentary fugue state Doug entered while driving to work one day in 1950.

Nineteen fifty! Think about that for a moment. What was the state of computing in 1950? Well, nearly all the computers in America were in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. Memory meant magnetic core memory; magnetic tapes were yet to come, so data was stored on punched cards (with holes that were oval, not rectangular -- if Univac, not IBM, had won the mainframe wars there would have been no hanging chads), and there were no computer displays at all. Computers had no user interfaces in the sense that we know them today. Heck, they had no USERS. Computers were not networked. They didn't even print. And into this primitive world, Doug Engelbart drove to work the day after he'd proposed to his sweetie, wondering what to do with his life. And by the time he got to work, he had in his mind something not at all unlike our computing experience today. Amazing! It was so amazing, in fact, that Doug had to keep most of his ideas secret simply to avoid ridicule. He shared his vision with colleagues, and they counseled him to keep it quiet so being a kook wouldn't hurt his career. He wrote his dissertation in another area, got patents on technologies other than those that were his true interest and even founded a company to do work that he didn't care that much about, all while waiting for the world to come around. It took 18 years for Doug to demonstrate to the world what he'd envisioned that day driving to work. And this column is about how the world reacted when that demonstration finally came.

That demo took place in 1968 at a conference in San Francisco. Using a keyboard, a mouse, and a chord keyset, Doug sat in a special chair built for him by the guys at Herman Miller, and demonstrated much of what we today do with computers every day. He created a document that could be seen as a page view. He cut and pasted. He moved files around a virtual desktop and grabbed data as needed from other computers. He sent and received mail. He chatted. The computer itself was back in Menlo Park, keystrokes and mouse movements were sent by telephone line and the video was carried over a multi-hop microwave link. Remember, this was all at a time when computing to the rest of us meant running a few thousand punched cards through a mainframe and waiting to get your output the next day from the line printer. At the conclusion of his demonstration, which can still be seen today on video taken at the time, the audience gave Doug a standing ovation.

It was one of those high points of a professional lifetime, the sort that indicate broad acceptance by peers and an open road to new successes. Doug Engelbart had shown the world what was possible to do with computers, and expected broad support for his future work.

But that support never came.

A standing ovation didn't mean that it was any easier for Doug to get funding for his research. It didn't lead to more research money. What it DID lead to was his losing his position as boss of his own lab at SRI when someone a bit more conventional was placed above him.

"It wasn't that my ideas were so radical by then, but that they didn't fit with either of the prevailing schools of research at the time," Doug recalled. "Back in the 1960s and 1970s the hot topics were Office Automation and Artificial Intelligence. Each of those areas was receiving huge amounts of research dollars and if you wanted money you had to be from one school or another. I wasn't. They were impressed by our demonstration, but couldn't see how it fit with their thinking. Office Automation was all about making secretaries more efficient but what we showed wasn't secretarial work. Artificial Intelligence was about teaching the computer to do the work for you, so while what we showed was very nice the people from that school felt that the computer should do those things automatically. So they applauded our work, but if anything it became even harder to find money to continue the work."

The way Engelbart was applauded as a talking dog rather than as a computing genius is actually pretty common in both science and research and development, where ideas that are at variance with accepted thinking have to prove themselves over time. The concept of continental drift was ridiculed for decades in geological circles before it was suddenly obvious. The Australian doctor's idea that gastric ulcers were caused by bacterial infection seemed crazy until suddenly it didn't. And office automation and artificial intelligence didn't turn out the way people expected, either.

Office automation, which probably reached its peak with Wang word processing machines, was a freight train in an emerging automobile culture. Yes, you could build an expensive but supremely efficient way of generating secretarial typing, but what about people who wanted to type for themselves? "Why would anyone want to type for themselves?" the office automation experts chuckled right before they were put out of work. They had no way of knowing that the personal computer was coming and that it would appeal to professionals. Instead of making secretaries in huge corporations more efficient what PCs enabled was the growth of small to medium-sized businesses essentially without secretaries. Bosses learned to type and do their own calendars and answer their own telephones and the world not only didn't stop turning, business improved.

Artificial intelligence never had a hope. The idea was interesting, but the computing power needed to implement it -- REALLY implement it -- was decades away. We're still at least a decade away from computers being able to figure out what we want and give it to us, which was the goal of artificial intelligence. So today we mainly work on ways to use technology to extend human capabilities rather than replace them, which of course was exactly the kind of thing Doug was showing back in 1968.

He's still showing us, still pushing a vision that he first conceived 54 years ago. And though he has the data to prove his points and the growing pile of awards recognizing his genius, Engelbart is still hungry for people to really understand his ideas. Check out Doug's Bootstrap Institute (it's in this week's links) and see how the future might have been.

I don't think much has really changed when it comes to how real innovations are embraced by our culture. We probably have our own versions of office automation and artificial intelligence that keep us from seeing the value of something really different. Just looking through my last seven years of writing in this spot, I can see dozens of ideas that were ahead of their times and many that still are. But that just means we have all the more to learn from true pioneers like Doug Engelbart.

Oh, and that DSL connection is fixed. It was screwed-up by Doug's grandson assigning and then forgetting a password.

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