Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Doug Engelbart passes away

If you use a mouse, hyperlinks, video conferencing, WYSIWYG word processor, multi-window user interface, shared documents, shared database, documents with images & text, keyword search, instant messaging, synchronous collaboration, asynchronous collaboration -- thank Doug Engelbart.

Then go watch The Demo, where Doug unveiled them to the world:

I have a teaching module with a presentation that puts Doug's enormous contribution in context.

I had the privilege of visiting Doug's lab when I was a graduate student working on interactive data mining. Two researchers, G. H. Ball and D. J. Hall were already using Doug's equipment for data analysis. He was open, idealistic, optimistic and far ahead of his time.

Here is a picture of Doug delivering The Demo:

(I added the chord keypad to let you all know that Doug was not infallible :-).

Here is the abstract for The Demo at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference (JCC). The Fall and Spring JCCs were major conferences at the time and Doug Spoke before a crowded auditorium. It was the most important presentation in the history of computer science.

One reason Doug and his team were so productive and successful is that they used the excellent collaboration-support tools they were building to support their own work. Doug emphasized the importance of their use of their own tools -- as they say "eating their own dogfood." The team used shared documents and databases as well as synchronous collaboration tools like what must have been the first computer-equipped meeting room:

People insist on summarizing Doug's contribution as being the "inventor of the mouse." That is an extreme understatement of the importance of his work and thinking, but I guess I have to say something about the mouse. Here is a figure from his patent application:

Today we all use tools derived from his lab prototypes.  Could an economist estimate the contribution to GDP of those tools?

The following are two famous images Doug used to illustrate his work. Unlike Steve Jobs, Doug believed that if a tool were sufficiently powerful, people would invest the time to learn to use it, so simplicity and being similar to familiar tools from the past was not necessary. We would not build a racing tricycle for high speed travel, but would invent something new, the modern racing bike:

He saw the computer as a companion tool that would augment human intelligence. To make that point, he taped a pencil to a brick to show the de-augmentation.:

The Demo and these images were crystal clear -- you "got it" as soon as you saw them. On the other hand, Doug's writing could be a bit hard to follow -- he worked within a theoretical framework which he expanded upon throughout is career. Check this defining document on his Conceptual Framework for Augmenting Human Intellect.


Update 8/1/2013

I've put together a 17-image photo tribute to Doug Engelbart's work -- cool images with captions and links to more.


Update 8/3/2013

Just as The Demo showed the ways in which computers could improve productivity, a demonstration of applications of the ARPANet illustrated the potential of computer networking at the 1972 International Conference on Computer Communication. Attendees could interact with networked applications using 40 terminals. The demonstrations spread interest in network applications beyond the small group that had designed and built the ARPANet.

This ARS Technica article describes the conference and demonstrations. Much of the article is excerpted from the book Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. If you like the article, you'll want to read the book.

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