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Douglas Engelbart: The Man Behind Your Mouse (And a Lot More)


If it weren't for Douglas Engelbart, the computer on your desk might still be little more than a glorified typewriter, and you might still be struggling to remember arcane DOS commands so you could type them into a luminous green C:\ prompt on a black screen. And the multimedia marvels of the Web might not have ever existed.

As computer historian Howard Rheingold once wrote, "We wouldn't be sitting in front of personal computers today if it wasn't for him."

Back in the 1960s, Engelbart led a team at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) that basically invented the modern graphical computer interface, as well as the computer mouse that enables us to navigate a world in which ideas are rendered as pictures. In 1968, at an engineering conference in San Francisco, Engelbart gave a famous presentation - known in the computer world as " the mother of all demos" - in which he dazzled an audience of computer wonks by showing for the first time how someone could use a mouse to cut and paste type into a document. He also showed that by clicking an underlined word or phrase - a hypertext link - it was possible to be transported to another document that contained more information. 

Here are some facts about Engelbart, who died on July 2 at age 88 in Atherton, Calif., and the wired world that he helped to create:

  • A native of Portland, Ore., Engelbart spent World War II as a radar operator in the Pacific. Watching a radar console later inspired him to imagine a computer screen full of clickable objects as a way to work with information. As he explained decades later to Wired: "All of a sudden - wham! - I got an image of myself sitting at a big CRT [cathode ray tube] screen with all kinds of symbols on it, new and different ones, manipulated by a computer that could be operated through various input devices. All the material on the screen could be controlled with great flexibility. Other people had their display units tied to the same computer complex, and you could connect them. Everybody could share knowledge. The vision unfolded rapidly, in about a half hour, and suddenly the potential of interactive, collaborative computing became totally clear."

  • Engelbart filed to patent the computer mouse in 1967. In the application, it was called an "X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System."

  • Engelbart and his team spent six years developing the mouse. Nobody is sure who invented the name. Initially, Engelbart and his team designed the device to have its "tail" - i.e., the cord connecting it the computer - coming out of the side of the mouse closest to the user's body, but realized that it wouldn't work because the cord would become tangled.

  • The cursor on the screen originally was called "the bug."

  • In the words of New York Times technology writer John Markoff, Engelbart's 1968 demo was "the first time that truly personal computing had been seen."

  • Engelbart's original vision for graphical computing later was refined in the 1970s by Xerox, but it wasn't until 1981 that the first personal computers with mice were sold, and the concept didn't really become popular until the Apple Mac debuted in 1984.

  • At a dinner in 2010 celebrating Engelbart's 85th birthday, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak leaned over to Engelbart and said: "If all the leaders of the world - the presidents of all the countries, the CEOs of all the companies - were in this room, you'd be my hero. You'd be the one I'd gravitate to."


Photo: Engelbart in 2008 by Alex Handy via Wikipedia


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