In Silicon Valley, the term visionary is so routinely applied to folks who are merely bright and clever that it’s lost most of its meaning. But when Douglas Engelbart died at his home in Atherton, Calif., on Tuesday, at the age of 88, we lost someone so brilliantly forward-looking that calling him a visionary almost seems like an understatement.
Engelbart is best known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but leaving it at that is like praising Orville and Wilbur Wright for their pioneering role in the history of propellers. He began his computer research in the 1950s and ended up at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI). In the 1960s, at a time when human interaction with computers was conducted largely by means of punch cards — and most of the humans doing the interacting were computer scientists — Engelbart saw computers as a way for human beings to augment their intellect. Then he set about building the necessary tools to make that not only possible, but also easy.
The mouse — and the whole concept of manipulating onscreen elements by pointing at them — mattered hugely. But so did his SRI lab’s groundbreaking work on bitmapped displays, hypertext and other man-to-machine technologies. The research efforts he led jump-started the revolution that inspired the graphical user interface developed at Xerox’s PARC in the 1970s and commercialized by Apple, Microsoft and other companies in the 1980s. Even today, researchers working on the future of personal technology continue to feast on ideas that Engelbart was thinking about more than a half-century ago.
At a December 1968 conference in San Francisco, he showed attendees his current work, which included a windowed user interface, interactive document editing, networked resources, videoconferencing and, of course, a mouse. Justly nicknamed the “mother of all demos,” it must have been mind-blowing at the time, 15 years before the first Apple Macintosh brought some (but not all) of his concepts into homes and offices. It’s still about the most intense tour de force of raw creativity and innovation that the tech world has ever seen. Lucky for us, the whole thing was filmed for posterity:
Engelbart was able to see things that most people couldn’t, and make them real. But he was also a passionate believer in what he called Collective IQ — the ability of teams to do things that lone guns cannot. In recent years, he advocated for that vision at his Doug Engelbart Institute, which he co-founded with his daughter Christina. I’ll miss seeing him at conferences and other events around the valley, but his monuments are all around us — on our desktops, in our hands and everywhere else that humans use technology to augment their intelligence.