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Douglas Engelbart - Father of more than just the mouse

I am a big fan of learning from history. In the case of our industry, computer science, the history is not very long. Some people act like we have no history and discard it, but it is richer than you think.

There has been a bit of a move lately to recognise the role of people like Doglas Engelbart - these days even popular press articles will often make a passing reference to the "father of the mouse".

I can distinctly remember the first time I read As we may think, the Atlantic monthly article by Vanevar Bush in 1945 where he describes a hypertext system for aiding scientific discovery. I remember reading it in 1996 or thereabouts. The "web" was in it's infancy, but the dream was old. (You might want to get a copy of From Memex to Hypertext: Vanevar Bush and the Mind's Machine if you want to know more about Bush. It's a bit dry but packed with great stuff).

As we may think made me realise that computer science and human computer interaction (HCI) could get great value from drawing on our history. Being a big Apple fan, I knew about Xerox Parc, and the modern history of computing, but here was a whole era I knew nothing about. That lead me on a search that discovered Douglas Engelbart.

EngelbartDouglas Engelbart headed a research team that designed a system called NLS for oNline Learning System. He was more than just a man in the right place at the right time - he fought for funding year after year, from one government agency to another, until he reached his goal. And that goal is demonstrated in his famous 1 hour demonstration.

I have known about "the demonstration" for many years, but now thanks to Englebart's prescience in having the demo filmed and someone saving the footage and uploading it to "the web 2.0", we can all experience it. I have to say, it is even more incredible than I had believed possible.

I knew about the pioneering user input devices (the mouse, the chording keyboard), I knew about the multi-user collaborative features with hypertext linking, I knew about the interactive interface with line drawing, outlining, folding etc.

What I was unprepared for was the incredibly advanced hardware and software design ideas. My list from watching the 1hour video is:

  • DMA (direct memory access devices)
  • video conferencing (of sorts)
  • Using CRT latency to provide smooth interactivity
  • Domain specific languages (including a text pattern matching language and a high level language tightly coupled to the hardware - MOL - not unlike C)
  • C-Meta - a meta language that was used with a compiler-compiler for creating all their domain specific langauges
  • Code as documenation with a Smalltalk-like approach to code browsing and documentation where the code was treated exactly like the data (not too different from the Userland frontier approach now that I think of it)
  • Change tracking - the system kept track of who made what changes to what documents or statements
  • System wide search
  • Weighted keyword descriptors used with the search to provide ranked results
  • I mean this is just incredible. It would be an impressive system today - perhaps not unlike emacs - but in 1968! A mere 23 years after Vanevar Bush envisioned a hypertext research system based on microfilm.

    Simply amazing. Everyone must watch it - available on Google Video: Douglas Engelbart: The Demo.

11:40 PM, 24 Nov 2006 by Mark Aufflick Permalink

New Engelbart book expains his vision that drove his innovations

"The Engelbart Hypothesis: dialogs with Douglas Engelbart" is a brief overview of the Engelbart's vision for augmenting human intellect.

by Unregistered Visitor on 11/29/09

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