Douglas Engelbart

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Douglas Engelbart bigraphy, stories - Inventor

Douglas Engelbart : biography

30 January 1925 – 02 July 2013

Douglas Carl Engelbart (January 30, 1925 – July 2, 2013) was an American engineer and inventor, and an early computer and Internet pioneer. He is best known for his work on the challenges of human–computer interaction, particularly while at his Augmentation Research Center Lab in SRI International, resulting in the invention of the computer mouse, and the development of hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to graphical user interfaces.

Engelbart was a committed, vocal proponent of the development and use of computers and computer networks to help cope with the world’s increasingly urgent and complex problems. Engelbart embedded a set of organizing principles in his lab, which he termed "bootstrapping strategy". He designed the strategy to accelerate the rate of innovation of his lab.

Personal

Engelbart had four children, Gerda, Diana, Christina and Norman with his first wife Ballard, who died in 1997 after 47 years of marriage. He remarried on January 26, 2008 to writer and producer Karen O’Leary Engelbart. An 85th birthday celebration was held at the Tech Museum of Innovation.

Career and accomplishments

Guiding philosophy

Engelbart’s career was inspired in December 1950 when he was engaged to be married and realized he had no career goals other "than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after." Over several months he reasoned that:

  1. he would focus his career on making the world a better place;
  2. any serious effort to make the world better requires some kind of organized effort;
  3. harnessing the collective human intellect of all the people contributing to effective solutions was the key;
  4. if you could dramatically improve how we do that, you’d be boosting every effort on the planet to solve important problems — the sooner the better; and
  5. computers could be the vehicle for dramatically improving this capability.

In 1945, Engelbart had read with interest Vannevar Bush’s article "As We May Think", a call to action for making knowledge widely available as a national peacetime grand challenge. He had also read something about the recent phenomenon of computers, and from his experience as a radar technician, he knew that information could be analyzed and displayed on a screen. He envisioned intellectual workers sitting at display "working stations", flying through information space, harnessing their collective intellectual capacity to solve important problems together in much more powerful ways. Harnessing collective intellect, facilitated by interactive computers, became his life’s mission at a time when computers were viewed as number crunching tools.

He enrolled in graduate school in electrical engineering at University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a Master of Science degree in 1953, and a Ph.D. in 1955. As a graduate student at Berkeley he assisted in the construction of the California Digital Computer project CALDIC. His graduate work led to several patents. After completing his PhD, Engelbart stayed on at Berkeley as an assistant professor to teach for a year, and left when it was clear he could not pursue his vision there. Engelbart then formed a startup company, Digital Techniques, to commercialize some of his doctorate research on storage devices, but after a year decided instead to pursue the research he had been dreaming of since 1951.

Stanford Research Institute and Augmentation Research Center

Engelbart took a position at SRI International (known then as Stanford Research Institute) in Menlo Park, California in 1957. He initially worked for Hewitt Crane on magnetic devices and miniaturization of electronics; Engelbart and Crane became close friends. At SRI, Engelbart gradually obtained over a dozen patents (some resulting from his graduate work), and by 1962 produced a report about his vision and proposed research agenda titled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.