Douglas Englebart and the Mother of all Demos

On December 9, 1968, something huge took place in the world of computing. Indeed, it was an event that would help shape our world as we know it today.  This event, spearheaded by one Douglas Englebart, showcased several technologies that we know and love today, but, in 1968, were absolutely extraordinary.

firstMouseSo, what was this earth-shattering event? It was ‘The Mother of all Demos’.  This demo, showcasing the ideas that Englebart and his staff were working on at the Stanford Research Institute.

The result of the work, and what was demonstrated, was called NLS or oN Line System. The audience of a thousand were witness to the first live demo of: interconnected computers, the mouse, video teleconferencing, word processing, collaborative software, hypertext, objects in the computer space, a very, very crude type of graphical interface (sans real graphics, more like cursor addressable text, but the basis for gui’s were there) and more.

Englebart and his team were way ahead of the technology, however. And, not all of his ideas were accepted. For instance, the piano key style ‘quick keys’ never really took off.  This device consisted of several (four or five) multipurpose keys (that looked like piano keys) that execute what were, essentially, macros. It was a novel idea, but never took off.

Englebart went on to put his interconnectivity ideas to use in what was to become the ARPANET. ARPANET was the precursor to our current Internet.

Englebart and his team continued to work at the Augmentation Research Center into the 1970’s, which saw the dawn of personal computing. Interestingly enough, he didn’t fully embrace the notion of the ‘personal’ computer, instead, he foresaw networked, collaborative computing. More like timeshare or client-server style computing. He may have been onto something, as the majority of people now work in the type of setup: you may spend a grand on a computer, but what is the first thing you want to do with it: get on the Internet. It was this difference in philosophy that caused many of his colleagues to run off to Xerox Parc and work on the Graphical User Interface that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates ripped off and what gave way to our modern way of computing.

Douglas Englebart was a visionary who, unfortunately, got swept away by time and flashy personalities like Jobs.  People tend to credit Jobs and Gates for most of our computing advancements, but it was Englebart who led the way and laid the foundation for those two to build upon.

Mr. Englebart passed away on July 3, 2013. He was 88 years old.

For more information on the man and his research:


Bardini, Thierry. Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8047-3871-8

Douglas Englebart’s Demo, December 8, 1968

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