Douglas Engelbart


Douglas Engelbart : biography

30 January 1925 – 02 July 2013

This led to funding from ARPA to launch his work. Engelbart recruited a research team in his new Augmentation Research Center (ARC, the lab he founded at SRI), and became the driving force behind the design and development of the oN-Line System (NLS). He and his team developed computer interface elements such as bitmapped screens, the mouse, hypertext, collaborative tools, and precursors to the graphical user interface. He conceived and developed many of his user interface ideas back in the mid-1960s, long before the personal computer revolution, at a time when most computers were inaccessible to individuals, who could only use computers through intermediaries (see batch processing), and when software tended to be written for vertical applications in proprietary systems. Apple Macintosh Plus mice, 1986]]

Engelbart applied for a patent in 1967 and received it in 1970, for the wooden shell with two metal wheels (computer mouse – ), which he had developed with Bill English, his lead engineer, a few years earlier. In the patent application it is described as an "X-Y position indicator for a display system". Engelbart later revealed that it was nicknamed the "mouse" because the tail came out the end. His group also called the on-screen cursor a "bug", but this term was not widely adopted.

He never received any royalties for his mouse invention. During an interview, he says "SRI patented the mouse, but they really had no idea of its value. Some years later it was learned that they had licensed it to Apple Computer for something like $40,000." Engelbart showcased the chorded keyboard and many more of his and ARC’s inventions in 1968 at the so-called Mother of All Demos.

Erhard Seminars Training, Tymshare, and McDonnell Douglas

Engelbart slipped into relative obscurity after 1976. Several of his researchers became alienated from him and left his organization for Xerox PARC, in part due to frustration, and in part due to differing views of the future of computing. Engelbart saw the future in collaborative, networked, timeshare (client-server) computers, which younger programmers rejected in favor of the personal computer. The conflict was both technical and social: the younger programmers came from an era where centralized power was highly suspect, and personal computing was just barely on the horizon.

Engelbart served on the board of directors of Erhard Seminars Training (EST). Several key ARC personnel were also involved. Although EST had been recommended by other researchers, the controversial nature of EST and other social experiments reduced the morale and social cohesion of the ARC community.

The 1969 Mansfield Amendment, which ended military funding of non-military research, the end of the Vietnam War, and the end of the Apollo program reduced ARC’s funding from ARPA and NASA. SRI’s management, which disapproved of Engelbart’s approach to running the center, placed the remains of ARC under the control of artificial intelligence researcher Bertram Raphael, who negotiated the transfer of the laboratory to a company called Tymshare. Engelbart’s house in Atherton, California burned down during this period, causing him and his family further problems. Tymshare took over NLS and the lab that Engelbart had founded, hired most of the lab’s staff including its creator as a Senior Scientist, renamed the software Augment, and offered it as a commercial service via its new Office Automation Division. Tymshare was already somewhat familiar with NLS; back when ARC was still operational, it had experimented with its own local copy of the NLS software on a minicomputer called OFFICE-1, as part of a joint project with ARC.

At Tymshare, Engelbart soon found himself marginalized and relegated to obscurity. Operational concerns at Tymshare overrode Engelbart’s desire to do further research. Various executives, first at Tymshare and later at McDonnell Douglas, which acquired Tymshare in 1984, expressed interest in his ideas, but never committed the funds or the people to further develop them. His interest inside of McDonnell Douglas was focused on the enormous knowledge management and IT requirements involved in the life cycle of an aerospace program, which served to strengthen Engelbart’s resolve to motivate the information technology arena toward global interoperability and an open hyperdocument system. Engelbart retired from McDonnell Douglas in 1986, determined to pursue his work free from commercial pressure.