Meet Doug Engelbart
I use a trackpad most days, but it wasn’t always that way. And let’s admit — there are plenty of projects that are just plainly more efficiently accomplished thanks to the mouse — thank you, Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart for inventing it!
I’ll cover the tablet styluses another time, maybe. This article is devoted to praising Dr. Engelbart for his contribution to society and to the world.
I don’t know the names of those credited with inventing fire or the wheel or many of the other common and practical objects and tools that have made my own life easier and more accessible. But, as an aspiring product designer, I feel obliged to recognize the great forebears of the field; if only to pay homage. Dr. Engelbart is one of the greatest!
Born in Portland, Oregon, January 30, 1925, Dr. Engelbart was a middle child and loss his father at age 9. He served in the military as a radio operator and later earned a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in electrical engineering. He married Ballard Fish on May 5, 1951.
Less Well Known
If you are wondering why the name ‘Doug Engelbart’ doesn’t seem as familiar to you, Tia O’Brien’s explains —
“Engelbart’s technological innovations of more than 30 years ago should have placed him at the top of the silicon heap — well above Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Netscape’s Marc Andreessen and other luminaries credited with transforming our lives with personal computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web. Their products are all direct descendants of Engelbart’s inventions.
But the mild-mannered computer scientist who created the computer mouse, windows-style personal computing, hyperlinking — the clickable links used in the World Wide Web — even e-mail and video conferencing, was ridiculed and shunted aside. For much of his career he was treated as a heretic by the industry titans who ultimately made billions off his inventions.
Engelbart spent years exiled from the revolution he helped launch. “I was sent to Siberia, “ he jokes, referring to the long stretch when he was ostracized from the research community.
His longtime friend, Paul Saffo, director of Menlo Park-based Institute for the Future, says Engelbart endured an even crueler fate. “At least in Siberia you no longer could see the revolution. Doug drove past the revolution every day and wondered, ‘Why?”’ …”
“…Why was such a brilliant visionary exiled? The answer is clear after talking with friends, family and colleagues. While they universally agree that Engelbart is extremely gentle and kind, they also describe him as “single-minded, “ “bullheaded, “ and, at times, a “control freak.” Explains Andy van Dam, who credits Engelbart with inspiring his pioneering work in hypermedia, the use of graphics and text on computers, “He’s not hostile, but he’s going to do it his way. This is the hallmark of a visionary — they have this huge internal compass and they’re going to sail in that direction, the weather be damned.”
Futurist Saffo adds: “It’s not so much that people overlooked Doug but that they studiously tried to ignore him because his ideas made them uncomfortable.”
Engelbart’s unwillingness to bend was in evidence when he met Steve Jobs for the first time in the early 1980s. It was 15 years since Engelbart had invented the computer mouse and other critical components for the personal computer, and Jobs was busy integrating them into his Macintosh.
Apple Computer Inc.’s hot-shot founder touted the Macintosh’s capabilities to Engelbart. But instead of applauding Jobs, who was delivering to the masses Engelbart’s new way to work, the father of personal computing was annoyed. In his opinion, Jobs had missed the most important piece of his vision: networking. Engelbart’s 1968 system introduced the idea of networking personal computer workstations so people could solve problems collaboratively. This was the whole point of the revolution.”
The revolution referred to here is the personal computing revolution; to which Dr. Engelbart is credited with being the inventor of. The start of that revolution began in Menlo Park, California in the 1960’s and was introduced to the world, in what later became known, as the “Mother of All Demos”.
These types of “freight train” movements occur rarely within the lifespan of an industry, let alone the human history. What is especially interesting is that the world is still racing to try and catch up to the full measure of what Dr. Engelbart envisioned. The power of dogged-determination, Dr. Engelbart tenacity resulted is something the whole world is grateful for, even if they don’t know it or are still giving Steve Jobs all the credit for it. Those now earnestly engaged in bringing computing solutions to market and bridging the complexities of collaboration for the world, would do well to quote Sir Isaac Newton quoting Bernard of Chartres.
Images: Photo of Doug & Ballard / Photo of First Mouse / Photo of Mother of All Demos / Photo of a Freight-Train
Tia O’Brien’s story was originally published on February 9, 1999 in the San Jose Mercury News: