Answer to "16 Technologies": Engelbart and the Mother of All Demos

A few days ago I posted a challenge to name the researcher/team and approximate year each of the following 16 important technologies was first demonstrated. In brief, they were:

  • The personal computer for dedicated individual use all day long.
  • The mouse.
  • Internetworks.
  • Network service discovery.
  • Live collaboration and desktop/app sharing.
  • Hierarchical structure within a file system and within a document.
  • Cut/copy/paste, with drag-and-drop.
  • Paper metaphor for word processing.
  • Advanced pattern search and macro search.
  • Keyword search and multiple weighted keyword search.
  • Catalog-based information retrieval.
  • Flexible interactive formatting and line drawing.
  • Hyperlinks within a document and across documents.
  • Tagging graphics, and parts of graphics, as hyperlinks.
  • Shared workgroup document collaboration with annotations etc.
  • Live shared workgroup collaboration with live audio/video teleconference in a window.

A single answer to all of the above: Doug Engelbart and his ARC team, in what is now known as “The Mother of All Demos”, on Monday, December 9, 1968.

Last month, we marked the 40th anniversary of the famous Engelbart Demo, a truly unique “Eureka!” moment in the history of computing. 40 years go, Engelbart and his visionary team foresaw — and prototyped and demonstrated — many essential details of what we take for granted as our commonplace computing environment today, including all of the above-listed technologies, most of them demonstrated for the first time in that talk.

This talk would be noteworthy and historic just for being the first time a “mouse” was shown and called by that name. Yet the mouse was just one of over a dozen important innovations to be compellingly presented with working prototype implementations.

Note: Yes, some of the individual technologies have earlier theoretical roots. I deliberately phrased the question to focus on implementations because it’s great to imagine a new idea, but it isn’t engineering until we prove it can work by actually building it. For example, consider hypertext: Vannevar Bush’s Memex, vintage 1945, was a theorectical “proto-hypertext” system but it unfortunately remained theoretical, understandably so given the nascent state of computers at the time. Project Xanadu, started in 1960, pursued similar ideas but wasn’t demonstrated until 1972. The Engelbart Demo was the first time that hypertext was publicly shown in a working form, together with a slew of other important working innovations that combined to deliver an unprecedented tour de force. What made it compelling wasn’t just the individual ideas, but the working demonstrations to show that the ideas worked and how they could combine and interact in wonderful ways.

Recommended viewing

You can watch the 100-minute talk here (Stanford University) in sections with commentary, and here (Google Video) all in one go.

10 thoughts on “Answer to "16 Technologies": Engelbart and the Mother of All Demos

  1. Others don’t share your definition of “personal computer.” For example, http://www.blinkenlights.com/pc.shtml lists several pre-1968 possibilities, and includes the qualifier that it must be affordable by most people.

    I also thought some of the answers might be SAGE. For example, quoting http://www.computermuseum.li/Testpage/IBM-SAGE-computer.htm : “When SAGE was deployed in 1963, it consisted of 24 Direction Centers and 3 Combat Centers, each linked by long-distance telephone lines to more than 100 radar defense sites across the country, thereby establishing one of the first large-scale wide-area computer networks.” Isn’t that an example of internetworking?

  2. “Personal Computer” is still an imprecise term. There was no actual reason, aside from cost, that a person couldn’t buy an early system for personal day-long use, and the earlier systems were designed for one-person use. There were people who wanted one (like me in early high school). In this case, the computer would have been intended (by the owner) for personal use all day long (I see no reason to think 1960s hackers would be any less dedicated than 1990s).

    Therefore, the difference between an old single-person computer and a TRS-80 was economics and manufacturer intention (and probably more computing power for the TRS-80). For that matter, many early PCs were assigned to groups, and used sequentially by many people during the course of the day.

    This makes me wonder about calling anything before the Altair a personal computer. I doubt that Engelbart had a plan to manufacture personal computers affordably, and no computer manufacturers at the time intended their products as PCs.

    So, I’m not convinced about the PC. Very likely I missed something in the definition. I’m not saying Engelbart didn’t do something new and different that could be called the first PC, but I don’t understand from what’s given what that was.

  3. [Borrowing from my comment on the other post again here:]

    With the amount of attention given to what exactly is meant by a personal computer, maybe I should have left that bullet out, and split the last one into its two major parts to keep the list length at a nice power-of-two. :-)

    Any new technology idea has several major steps, notably: (1) theoretical idea/invention, (2) working prototype or proof-of-concept, and (3) commercial productization. That is why I tried to emphasize the word “demonstrate” — the intent of the exercise was to highlight the achievement of showing a working prototype, or proof of concept, which is what marks the boundary between science and engineering. Beyond that, making it affordable, usable, reliable, and so on is part of developing the technology further to make it commercially viable.

    To Peter: The patents by the inventor you mentioned date from 1979 onward, and as far as I can see don’t involve a mouse (see also here).

  4. BTW, SAGE used a light gun. You can see a picture at “http://www.computermuseum.li/Testpage/IBM-SAGE-computer.htm”. As you specifically said “mouse”, I wasn’t including that as an antecedent.

    I’ve not been able to find out much on-line info about SAGE. There’s an image of the console at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SAGE_console.jpeg . You can see the built-in ashtray and phone, but I doubt you’ll accept the latter as live audio interaction – it’s not controlled by the computer.

    Then again, I doubt the CPU on the NLS machine did anything to the video in the Engelbart demo. I’ve forgotten the details. Was it CPU switching of otherwise dedicated video circuits? Or was it only under non-CPU control?

    There’s a promotional video of SAGE at http://www.archive.org/details/OnGuard1956 but there’s no example of how to use the light gun, and one of the comments says that refresh time was 30 seconds.

  5. Something is awry here. The Engelbart video clearly implies a machine connection to ARPANET. That’s in clip 14 about minute 1:35 on the Stanford page, under the category “PRINTER/NETWORK”. He said “.. printer and the ARPANET coupling here.” The date of the video was December 9, 1968, as you say, but the first ARPA message was sent on October 29, 1969.

    The “Final Report” from July 1968 (at http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/Archive/Post68/FinalReport1968/study68environment.html ) clearly says under “3C6 Low-Priority Devices”: “and a terminal for the proposed ARPA computer network.”

    So I don’t agree that the demo can be used as a first demonstration date for internetworking.

    BTW, Peter Jansson? Many Swedes think that their countryman was the inventor of the mouse. I’ve seen that claim a few times while in Sweden. This is not the case, as you can see from the Wikipedia Talk page, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Håkan_Lans (and the lack of mention of it on the main page).

  6. One last comment – I’m also not convinced that NLS had a hierarchical file system. Individual files had hierarchical content, that’s obvious from the demo and from the documentation. But I haven’t seen that NLS implemented a full hierarchical file system, which I’ll define as one which can have a very large (N>100) tree depth.

    The underlying disk controller looks like it came from “Berkeley’s Project GENIE, where extensive file handling software was developed.” (http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/Archive/ResearchCenter1968/ResearchCenter1968.html ). But I can’t tell if there could be effectively arbitrary many subdirectories, vs. having a small maximum possible depth.

    Project GENIE and NLS both used the SDS 940, an early time-sharing system with paged virtual memory. Is time-sharing – the feeling that the computer is dedicted to a one user – what made you designated this a “personal” computer? From what I can tell from various comments, one of the failures of NLS was scalability across a network. It looks like everything depended on strong internal data integrity and willingness to be join the group’s way of organizing things, which isn’t very personal to me.

  7. Another blogger wrote:

    It’s also instructive to see the things [Engelbart] demonstrated that did not end up in every day use. Like the chorded control he used in conjunction with the mouse.

    Actually, that did end up in everyday use on PCs, Macs, and other popular environments. You’ve probably used it sometime in the last 24 hours.

    Engelbart showed a group of special keys for multi-key “chords”, and the main difference today is that the special keys are so standard that they’ve migrated onto the main keyboard. We do routinely use multi-key combinations (insert your favorite Ctrl-Alt-Del joke here), including in conjunction with a mouse (e.g,. Command-click, Alt-click, Ctrl-Shift-click).

    He demo’d it then, and we use it routinely today. Quite prescient, isn’t it?

  8. The “shift” and “control” keys (if not others) existed well before Engelbart. Take for example the ASR 33 Teletype keyboard, shown at http://www.pdp8.net/asr33/pics/kbd_top.shtml?large . You can see the CTRL and SHIFT keys on the left side. This keyboard was introduced in 1963, and wasn’t the first to have those keys.

    Engelbart uses chords for even single letter input. For example, “The keystroke codes for the letters A to Z are the binary combinations for to 26.” (from http://www.bootstrap.org/augdocs/friedewald030402/study68developments/study68developments.html which quotes Engelbart) . This is not how people think of modern multi-key input systems, which are all modifiers of a single character, or composition of single characters.

    The idea of chorded keyboards existed long before the 1960s in telegraph machines and mechanical keyboard systems. According to Wikipedia, IBM did some internal research on chorded key data entry systems in the late 1950s.

    Also, if you talk about combinations of key entry and the mouse then you must include the impact of Ivan Sutherland’s work with Sketchpad, 1963. It used a combination of a light pen and a set of switch controls to do an interactive CAD system. Sketchpad influenced Engelbart to develop NLS.

    My comments are not meant to diminish Engelbart’s work, but he did not work in a vacuum and most of the others didn’t have an impressive video to demo what they were doing.

  9. Engelbart’s work is remembered precisely BECAUSE he got it working well enough to do a demo. Other people invented interesting things, but didn’t demonstrate that they had them working. “Working” is what excites engineers. Ideas are a dime a dozen.

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