(2022-07-28) Johnson Douglas Engelbart Hidden Heroes
Steve Johnson: A Machine for Thinking: How Douglas Engelbart predicted the future of computing. (Hidden Heroes) In the fall of 1945, a 20-year-old electrical technician named Douglas Engelbart arrived at an American base in the Philippines on his first assignment for the Navy
During one of those solitary spells in the Red Cross Library, Engelbart picked up an issue of Life Magazine, which happened to feature an essay by the legendary engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush, then head of all R&D for the Army. The essay had a somewhat obscure title—“As We May Think”
25 years later, Engelbart would introduce the very first machine to live up to Bush’s original vision of the Memex.
By the late 50s, he had taken a position at Menlo Park’s Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a nonprofit that had been founded a decade before to drive innovation and economic activity in the Bay Area.
Engelbart realized that the technology had finally advanced far enough to begin thinking about building something real. A grant from the Defense Department funded an early memo that he published in 1962, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” In its opening paragraphs, he laid out the stakes.
On the strength of his manifesto, Engelbart secured support from SRI to open a lab at the institute, which he called the Augmentation Research Center
The first video game, Spacewar!, had begun circulating through labs around the country
Spacewar! was originally created by a group of grad students at MIT in 1961. The university had just acquired a state-of-the-art “minicomputer” called the PDP-1
would go on to be the direct inspiration for one of the first mass-market arcade games, Asteroids, created in the 1970s by the pioneering video game company Atari.
Working with his first colleague at the Augmentation Research Center, the engineer Bill English, Engelbart started tinkering with controllers that would allow users to manipulate information directly on the screen, instead of simply typing commands
While Doug Engelbart rightly gets the credit for the visionary thinking that led to the first mouse-driven graphic interface, it was in many respects the engineering genius of Bill English that brought Engelbart’s vision to life
English later moved on to work at the legendary Xerox PARC lab
The advent of computer monitors made it clear that text could be liberated from the fixed, linear structure of the printed page
Supported by funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—which would go on to provide the initial funding and technical support for the Internet a few years later—Engelbart developed a software environment that he called the On-Line Text System, later abbreviated to NLS.
Slowly word began leaking out of SRI that Engelbart had been cooking up some intriguing tools in his Menlo Park Lab, and at some point in 1968, he secured an invitation to speak about his work at a conference of computer scientists being held in downtown San Francisco
Instead of telling the audience about his invention, what if he could actually show them how it worked in real time? There was just one problem: the computer that ran NLS was an SDS-940, an immovable mainframe sitting in the SRI offices in Menlo Park
There were no high-speed internet cables to connect them, no satellite feeds.
A few decades ago, the musician and artist Brian Eno coined a term to describe the collective IQ of creative hubs at their peak: Florence in the 1500s, Harlem in the 1920s. He called that group creativity “scenius”.
Stewart Brand pulled into town, fresh from spearheading the early days of psychedelia in Haight-Ashbury with his legendary Trips festival, driving a Dodge truck filled with eclectic gear—electronic equipment, farming tools, books—that would soon be featured in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog
Brand was also in the middle of producing a multimedia art installation called WAR:GOD.
According to John Markoff, author of Brand’s new biography, Whole Earth, WAR:GOD employed “two Kodak slide projectors, a 16 mm projector, and a stereo tape recorder to create an hour-long presentation that never repeated itself because the slides would be resequenced between each performance.”
From Engelbart and English’s point of view, Brand’s arrival was a stroke of tremendous luck. They were trying to push the boundaries of what screens and projectors and physical events were capable of doing. Brand had been effectively working on the same problem for the previous two years—only without the Defense Department funding
“After the Trips festival, I’d gotten a reputation as being an impresario of public events. So they invited me over to their scene to help them think through and then perform that demo,” Brand recalls now.
This three-day event, held at the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco in January 1966, is widely credited with being the nascence of the hippie movement. Trips Festival was a part of the “Acid Tests” series conducted by Ken Kesey and centered on the use of and advocacy for the psychedelic drug LSD.
After much deliberation, the team at the ARC hit upon a general strategy for the demo. The crucial technological breakthrough was a high-bandwidth microwave connection that Bill English arranged to connect the San Francisco conference center with the SRI offices in Menlo Park, allowing live video to be transmitted between the two locations.
To share the image from Engelbart’s screen with the San Francisco audience, they rented a cutting-edge projector from the Swedish company Eidophor, so unusual at the time that it had to be shipped out to the West Coast from New York.
Brand says now, laughing at the memory: “Even word processing was apparently news to most people, that you could change text, move it around — it was like, wow, how’d he do that?” And remember: this was an audience composed of some of the most sophisticated minds in computer science at the time.
When Engelbart ended the presentation, he was greeted with a standing ovation that lasted for minutes. In the audience was computer scientist Andy Van Dam, who would go on to be one of the core innovators in developing hypertext in the next decade.
Years later, when the tech journalist Steven Levy sat down to write his history of the Macintosh, Insanely Great, he began the book with an account of Engelbart’s performance. He gave it a name that has since become indelibly associated with the event. He called it “the mother of all demos.”
As Markoff and others have observed, the Bay Area tech scene lay at the unlikely intersection of three distinct cultural rivers: the intellectuals and scientists in the orbit of Stanford and Berkeley; military funding from DARPA; and the counterculture that had become such a dominant presence in Northern California during the period, from Esalen all the way up the coast to Marin County. Engelbart’s demo was, in a way, the first public evidence of the magnitude of the innovation that convergence was about to produce.
“Engelbart was an odd duck, top to bottom,” Brand says now. “He was obsessed and driven and single-minded—and he just lasered through a whole lot of things with that.”
“He was so monomaniacal he was boring,” Brand says now with a chuckle. “Once you’d heard him with his soft, purring, confident voice explaining one more time how human intellect was going to be augmented, you’d realize you’d already heard 90% of what he was going to say... I think that’s one of the reasons he didn’t really prosper after the demo.”
the NLS system—and its spectacular introduction—turned out to be the high-water mark of his influence.
In a way, he accomplished what he’d set out to do, not so much in building a system that millions would use to augment their intellect—the NLS never became a shipped product—but by inspiring the generation that did ultimately build those systems.