How the Mother of All Demos portrayed the power of possibilities

Net Results: Five decades after Douglas Englebart clicked the first mouse, it is still a gobsmacking thing of wonder

Douglas Engelbart: Imagine being able to look at some bits of wood and wire, metal and silicon, at existing copper wire phone networks, at early video, and being able to conceptualise the foundations for the future of mass business and personal computing, and the connectivity of the internet

Douglas Engelbart: Imagine being able to look at some bits of wood and wire, metal and silicon, at existing copper wire phone networks, at early video, and being able to conceptualise the foundations for the future of mass business and personal computing, and the connectivity of the internet

 

Fifty years ago this week, a man named Douglas Englebart from the Stanford Research Institute presented a legendary talk and live demonstration in San Francisco of some early computer technologies.

That pivotal historical moment has since been dubbed “the mother of all demos”. Englebart’s vision of the future was, especially by today’s industry event standards, endearingly accessible, as he amiably focused on his invention of a few years earlier, the mouse, and new interactive ways of working with a computer.

He rolls the blocky two-wheeled wooden device, the size of a slice of cake, around a table as a camera lets his audience of engineers see how the mouse in turn moves the cursor around a computer screen.

There was no web back then, on December 9th, 1968. Instead, we join him in viewing what seems to be a classic command line interface on the screen: words, numbers, and a blinking cursor waiting for a new command to be typed.

Hyperlinks

But it isn’t just a command line. Some of the words contain the first hyperlinks. Click on them and he’s able to interact with those words, move them around.

Englebart shows how he can easily reorder items just by clicking on the hyperlinked words on a numbered shopping list (of all things, but it’s pure genius – what better to casually imply that computers might someday be truly personal devices?). He clicks and rolls, and “carrots” zip from the bottom of the list to the number three slot, in neat alphabetical order behind apples and bananas (because of course you want an alphabetised, numbered shopping list, don’t you?).

He does some collaborative shared-screen, video camera-linked work with a colleague 40 miles away in Menlo Park (embryonic videoconferencing). He works with separate areas of screen that can carry out independent tasks – basically, what we now know as windows.

He also shows a diagram of the first set of locations for what would become, years later, the internet. Then, it was a planned network of 20 individual Big Iron computers, in various locations across the US.

He concludes by dedicating the demonstration to his wife and daughters, and the audience applauds enthusiastically. You can watch highlights from the event in a series of short YouTube videos (https://iti.ms/2zW77SP).

This may all seem a bit “so what” now, when you can interact with people in 3D virtual reality – heck, you can fly through the sky with them if you wish. You can FaceTime on that handheld pocket computer called a mobile. You can collaborate with huge work teams using various apps and platforms.

But watch closely. Those videos, that demo, remain a thing of wonder. It’s still just jaw-dropping, in promise, in implication, in possibility. And not just because a bunch of (mostly) guys are getting a preview of more intuitive ways to communicate with a computer – of hyperlinks, of the internet, and other innovations we now take for granted.

Showmanship

In part, it’s amazing because it all seems so . . . normal. Consider that video link bit. Oh sure, that could be now. Or it could have been Steve Jobs doing a demo decades later. Indeed, Jobs had nothing on Englebart’s showmanship skills. At this demo, Englebart projected his computer onto a 22-ft high screen behind him.

But it’s 1968. Nixon is US president. A man has not yet stepped on to the moon. Many of us are still watching TV on black and white, rabbit-ear sets.

As someone old enough to have experienced the gobsmacking moment of first using a computer mouse, after several years of entering on-screen line commands and using the direction keys to guide a blinking cursor, I can confirm that the moment of holding it, then rolling it across a desk to the very edge (I didn’t initially get the idea that you could actually lift and re-place it), and being able to click on hyperlinks and highlight and move text around . . . well, for me that fit the famed quote from writer and thinker Arthur C Clarke, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

But my experience, in the 1980s, was two decades – decades! – after Englebart’s Mother of All Demos. Imagine being able to look at some bits of wood and wire, metal and silicon, at existing copper wire phone networks, at early video, and being able to conceptualise the foundations for the future of mass business and personal computing, and the connectivity of the internet.

Englebart lived long enough to see much of this technological shift come to fruition. He died in 2013, aged 88 (https://iti.ms/2GdyGNg).

Yet we really are only beginning to understand and explore the parameters of possibility he introduced in that demo. And, in worrying contrast, we are only gradually apprehending (and often ignoring) the responsibilities those technologies also carry, precisely because of the way they impact every obvious – but also, every minute and unforeseen – aspect of our lives. And of society more generally, and of the planet itself.

In short, 50 years on, we still haven’t fully comprehended the vision, or the portent, of that astonishing Mother of All Demos.

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