The Mother of All Demos, 50 Years On

If you’re like me, chances are pretty good that you’ve been taught that all the elements of the modern computer user interface — programs running in windows, menus, icons, WYSIWYG editing of text documents, and of course, the venerable computer mouse — descended from the hallowed halls of the Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center in the early 1970s. And it’s certainly true that PARC developed these technologies and more, including the laser printer and object-oriented programming, all of which would grace first the workplaces of the world and later the homes of everyday people.

But none of these technologies would have existed without first having been conceived of by a man with a singular vision of computing. Douglas Engelbart pictured a future in which computers were tools to sharpen the human intellectual edge needed to solve the world’s problem, and he set out to invent systems to allow that. Reading a Twitter feed or scanning YouTube comments, one can argue with how well Engelbart’s vision worked out, but there’s no arguing with the fact that he invented almost all the trappings of modern human-computer interaction, and bestowed it upon the world in one massive demonstration that became known as “The Mother of All Demos.”

A Vision for a Better Future

Douglas Engelbart during the Mother of all Demos.

While the Mother of All Demos occurred in 1968, its genesis goes back more than two decades earlier, to a little grass hut in the Philippines. There, in the very earliest days of the Cold War, a young man serving as a US Navy radar technician, happened upon an article by Vannevar Bush called “As We May Think.” In the essay, Bush described his vision for an information machine that could act as a collective memory device and spark an explosion in human knowledge.

The Bush article was heady stuff to Doug Engelbart, whose undergrad studies at Oregon State University had been interrupted by his call to service. When he returned, he finished his degree in electrical engineering and made plans to marry his college sweetheart. Like many veterans, he planned on the “get married, get a good job, live the good life” model, but something about that paradigm bothered him. In 1950, he mapped out an alternate path for his life, one that would concentrate on making the world a better place by leveraging human intellect through information systems of the kind Bush described in his essay. Engelbart reasoned that only by organizing human knowledge and providing easy access to it could he achieve his goal of solving the world’s problems.

Engelbart spent the first half of the 1950s on graduate work at Berkeley. With a doctorate in electrical engineering, he set out to make his vision a reality. By 1957 he had landed at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. Funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made it possible for him to create the Augmentation Research Center (ARC), a lab within the Institute devoted to bringing his vision of an information society to life.

Reinventing What Computer Hardware Could Be

US Patent 3,541,541. The mouse is born,

The effort took him through the 1960s, as ARC struggled to develop technologies that would change computers from rooms full of equipment handled only by specialists into systems that could potentiate the intellectual development of individuals. The hardware of the day was simply not up to the task of running his “oN-Line System,” or NLS (the awkward acronym resulted from the need to differentiate it from its predecessor in the lab, the Off-line Text System, or FLTS. The “text” part was eventually dropped when the system started doing more than organize text). NLS would be the system behind the Mother of All Demos.

NLS development bounced around the various machines that the lab got access to through the 1960s. Starting with a CDC 160A, a machine designed by Seymour Cray, the NLS moved to a more powerful CDC 3100 by the middle of the decade. That let Engelbart’s team add more capabilities to NLS that would eventually be seen in the demo, like windowing, the precursor to hypertext markup, simple drawing programs, hierarchical organization of data, and even the beginnings of video conferencing.

Mouse prototype built by Bill English from Douglass Engelbart’s sketches (Bill is pictured at the top of this article, preparing for the Mother of all Demos)

To facilitate all this, Engelbart invented a device that he would patent in 1967 as an “X-Y Position Indicator.” The device, built by lead engineer Bill English from a block of wood and a pair of metal wheels attached to optical encoders, was dubbed “the mouse” by Engelbart due to its long tail. The lab also built other unique hardware, like the chorded keyboard (using multiple fingers for each command) that would be used to confirm and abort commands in the NLS.

Demo Time

By 1968, all of this was running on an SDS 940 time-sharing computer. This machine provided the horsepower needed to publically demonstrate Engelbart’s system for the first time. The Mother of All Demos would pull out all the stops. It would be a live presentation to the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. The hall had large television monitors set up, which would show both the NLS screen and a live video overlay of Engelbart’s face as he narrated the demo. Microwave links carried video between Menlo Park and San Francisco, 48 km distant, and a scratch-built modem linked the demo terminal to the SDS 940 back in the lab.

While we wouldn’t call the video quality anything to write home about by today’s standards, the demo went off without any major technical glitches, a minor miracle considering how many things could have gone wrong. Engelbart held forth for over an hour and a half, demonstrating his vision for how the “intellectual worker” of the future would interact with computers. Everything about the demo is something we see in our systems now, from the cursor hopping around the screen to the way programs pop up in separate windows. In just one hundred minutes, the entire foundation upon which the next 50 years of computer development would be based was laid out, clearly and cogently.

Think your last demo was big? The hall where the Mother of All Demos was held. Source: The Doug Engelbart Institute

Through it all, the visage of Doug Engelbart, calm and confident in what he had created, gazed out at the attendees. You can clearly see that he’s enjoying himself immensely at points, even when he makes the occasional flub or asks a rhetorical, “Now where is that?” while searching for the right combination of key chordings and mouse clicks to accomplish a task. It’s the confidence that comes from the intimate knowledge of a system that only its inventor can have, knowing its quirks and foibles and how to work with them.

The entire video is worth watching, of course, but for those who don’t have the time to devote, the Doug Engelbart Institute has kindly diced the video into more manageable chunks. It’s really worth checking out at least a few of the videos, as they give a glimpse into an amazing accomplishment and a huge leap forward in the way we talk to computers. That all of this was pulled off a half-century ago, and performed live before a huge audience, makes it all the more incredible.

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