A Machine for Thinking: How Douglas Engelbart predicted the future of computing

BY STEVEN JOHNSON

More than 50 years ago, Douglas Engelbart gave the “mother of all demos” that transformed software forever. The computer world has been catching up with his vision ever since.

Illustration: Paweł Jońca
Doug Engelbart
Doug Engelbart
Doug Engelbart

In the fall of 1945, a 20-year-old electrical technician named Douglas Engelbart arrived at an American base in the Philippines on his first assignment for the Navy. Just a few weeks before his arrival, Japan had formally surrendered to the Allies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. With the war officially over, Engelbart found himself with time on his hands in his new South Pacific station. 

“I wandered around one day and I found this Philippine hut, built on stilts with animals living underneath,” he would later recall. “And there was a sign that said, Red Cross Library. So I climbed a little ladder and there was a very pleasant room up there, a very nicely outfitted little library. And with about a thousand marines and sailors on the island, there wasn’t a single other person in it. So I spent a lot of time up there.”

Douglas Engelbart at SRI during a demo rehearsal. December 1968. Courtesy of SRI International
Time Inc., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During one of those solitary spells in the Red Cross Library, Engelbart picked up an issue of Life Magazine, which happened to feature an essay by the legendary engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush, then head of all R&D for the Army. The essay had a somewhat obscure title—“As We May Think”—but turned out to be a description of a future device that Bush called the Memex, a machine for augmenting our memories and our intellect, just as telescopes and microscopes had augmented our vision. Bush described it as a kind of “mechanized file or library” where people would someday store their books and documents and correspondence, making “trails” of association between all the data, like paths beaten down through a dense forest of information.

Sitting alone among the treetops on that remote South Pacific island, Engelbart was captivated. “As We May Think” planted the seed of an idea in his mind, an idea that eventually turned into an obsession. 25 years later, Engelbart would introduce the very first machine to live up to Bush’s original vision of the Memex. 

And the way he introduced it would be almost as groundbreaking as the device itself.

The origin of the revolution. Illustration: Paweł Jońca

In pursuit of augmented human intelligence

After his stint in the Navy, Engelbart returned to the West Coast, getting a degree in electrical engineering at Oregon State, followed a few years later by a PhD at Berkeley. By the late 50s, he had taken a position at Menlo Park’s Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a nonprofit that had been founded a decade before to drive innovation and economic activity in the Bay Area. By the time Engelbart arrived there, SRI was already well on its way to delivering on its mission, as the “Mid-Peninsula” region—now the heart of Silicon Valley—was bustling with new ideas about computers and their potential applications. Fairchild Semiconductor had been founded in 1957, followed a few years later by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. New “minicomputers” like the PDP-1—massive machines the size of refrigerators, but smaller than their predecessors—were being released, some of them attached to actual monitors instead of teletype machines and punch card readers.

Minicomputers

Known as minis, minicomputers were designed for scientific and engineering computations, business transaction processing, file handling, and database management. Much smaller, less expensive, and not as powerful as mainframe computers, minis formed a new class of computers that were mostly sold to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Most sources point to the Digital Equipment Corporation's (DEC) PDP-8 as the first minicomputer that defined the whole class. With the introductory price of $18,500 (equivalent to $159,077 in 2021) and over 50,000 units sold, it was the first commercially successful minicomputer.

Two decades after his early epiphany reading about the Memex in the Philippines, Engelbart realized that the technology had finally advanced far enough to begin thinking about building something real. A grant from the Defense Department funded an early memo that he published in 1962, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” In its opening paragraphs, he laid out the stakes:

"Man's population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity. Augmenting man's intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable approach and some plausible benefits."

The vision. Illustration: Paweł Jońca

On the strength of his manifesto, Engelbart secured support from SRI to open a lab at the institute, which he called the Augmentation Research Center. Already a handful of pioneering computer scientists had begun to explore the new possibilities opened up by attaching powerful computers to screens. The first video game, Spacewar!, had begun circulating through labs around the country; players controlled a virtual spaceship which they could fly around the screen, firing lasers at an opponent. The graphics were comically simple by our standards, but the game suggested a whole new way of interacting with machines. For the first time, the user was represented by an avatar on the screen that they could control by hitting keys on a keyboard. A few Spacewar! devotees even began exploring the idea of making mechanical controls to direct the spaceship, the early prototypes of the joysticks and game controllers now ubiquitous in the gaming world.

One of the most important video games of all time

Spacewar! was originally created by a group of grad students at MIT in 1961. The university had just acquired a state-of-the-art “minicomputer” called the PDP-1, manufactured by the Digital Equipment Corporation, which was one of the first computers to utilize a monitor to share information. As science fiction fans, the grad students decided to design a space-themed game to demonstrate the new computer’s prowess. Before long SpaceWar! was being played across the country in university computer labs, and would go on to be the direct inspiration for one of the first mass-market arcade games, Asteroids, created in the 1970s by the pioneering video game company Atari.

Spacewar! game on PDP-1 minicomputer. Kenneth Lu, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Working with his first colleague at the Augmentation Research Center, the engineer Bill English, Engelbart started tinkering with controllers that would allow users to manipulate information directly on the screen, instead of simply typing commands. In late 1963, Engelbart started taking notes on a device that he initially called a “bug” that would contain two wheels that would measure movement on an x and y axis, and use that information to control a pointer on a screen. English built a prototype the next year out of a small wooden box. The cord hanging out of the back of it seemed almost like the tail of a small mammal, and so they began informally referring to the device as a “mouse.” The term stuck.

Bill English

While Doug Engelbart rightly gets the credit for the visionary thinking that led to the first mouse-driven graphic interface, it was in many respects the engineering genius of Bill English that brought Engelbart’s vision to life. After collaborating with Engelbart on the original mouse design, English led a project for NASA in 1965 that evaluated multiple potential technologies for controlling digital computers, with the mouse ultimately selected as the most effective approach. English later moved on to work at the legendary Xerox PARC lab in Silicon Valley, where key elements of the graphic interface—icons and folders, the desktop metaphor—were developed and refined. At Xerox PARC, English continued to tweak his original creation, developing a new mouse that used a rolling ball to detect user movement, an architecture that Apple would eventually adopt for the first computer mouse to reach a mainstream audience, released as part of the Apple Macintosh in 1984.

Engelbart at the Augmentation Research Center. Courtesy of SRI International

Engelbart and his growing team at ARC were also innovating on the software side. The advent of computer monitors made it clear that text could be liberated from the fixed, linear structure of the printed page. Onscreen, you could move through information space in ways that were impossible in print. Supported by funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—which would go on to provide the initial funding and technical support for the Internet a few years later—Engelbart developed a software environment that he called the On-Line Text System, later abbreviated to NLS.

Slowly word began leaking out of SRI that Engelbart had been cooking up some intriguing tools in his Menlo Park Lab, and at some point in 1968, he secured an invitation to speak about his work at a conference of computer scientists being held in downtown San Francisco. At the time, the conventional way of sharing your work at such an event would be to deliver a lecture. If you wanted to be really fancy about it, you could use an overhead projector to augment the speech, using special “pages” of transparent film that could contain text or images.

The system of the “firsts”

While Engelbart’s NLS platform is now mostly celebrated for introducing the first computer mouse and elements of hypertext and graphical interfaces, the system also offered an early glimpse of what would become known as collaborative software. (Engelbart is sometimes referred to as the “father of groupware.”) NLS supported teleconferencing, shared files, and online communities. In the decade after Engelbart’s famous demo, the mass market success of personal computers convinced Engelbart that something crucial had been lost. “The personal computer revolution,” he wrote in the 1980s, “turned its back on those tools that led to the empowering of… distributed work groups collaborating simultaneously and over time on common knowledge work.” It wasn’t until the rise of cloud computing and services like Slack and Google Docs that Engelbart’s original vision of collaborative software truly came of age.

Engelbart had a different idea. Instead of telling the audience about his invention, what if he could actually show them how it worked in real time? There was just one problem: the computer that ran NLS was an SDS-940, an immovable mainframe sitting in the SRI offices in Menlo Park. The conference was in San Francisco, 30 miles to the north. There were no high-speed internet cables to connect them, no satellite feeds.

Engelbart and English knew they had invented truly revolutionary tools that promised to transform the way we use computers forever. Now they just had to invent a way to demo them.

Englelbart’s mouse. Courtesy of SRI International

The mother of all demos

A few decades ago, the musician and artist Brian Eno coined a term to describe the collective IQ of creative hubs at their peak: Florence in the 1500s, Harlem in the 1920s. He called that group creativity “scenius”. By the time Engelbart and English started thinking about staging their demo, the Mid-Peninsula scenius quotient was remarkably high for a patch of land that had been orchards just a few generations before. Right up the street from SRI was the headquarters of the radical left magazine, Ramparts. The Grateful Dead played late-night shows at Kepler’s Books around the corner. The social clusters of computer hobbyists that would become the Homebrew Computer Club in the next decade were meeting up over coffee or drinks, plotting the revolution that was to come.

Collective intelligence

In 2009, Eno described the origins of his concept of “scenius” during a talk at the Sydney Luminous Festival: “I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt, and Giotto and so on who appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolutions. As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture. What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people—some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were—all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work… So I came up with this word ‘scenius’: the intelligence of a whole operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture.”

“The crucible for an entire industry”

Founded in March 1975, this informal group of computer enthusiasts played a crucial role in the microcomputer revolution and the emergence of the Silicon Valley center for technology and innovation. The invitation to the very first club meeting, that was held at Gordon French’s garage in Menlo Park, encouraged hobbyists who worked on DIY computers, terminals, I/O devices, and alike to join a gathering to “exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, and help work on a project.” The most famous thinkers that emerged from the club’s ranks were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Some of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club have continued to meet into the 2000s.

Scenius. Illustration: Paweł Jońca

And then Stewart Brand pulled into town, fresh from spearheading the early days of psychedelia in Haight-Ashbury with his legendary Trips festival, driving a Dodge truck filled with eclectic gear—electronic equipment, farming tools, books—that would soon be featured in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, the generation-defining magazine Brand began publishing in 1968. As it happened, Brand was also in the middle of producing a multimedia art installation called WAR:GOD. According to John Markoff, author of Brand’s new biography, Whole Earth, WAR:GOD employed “two Kodak slide projectors, a 16 mm projector, and a stereo tape recorder to create an hour-long presentation that never repeated itself because the slides would be resequenced between each performance.”

Stewart Brand

After his collaboration with Engelbart on the “mother of all demos,” Stewart Brand went on to influence the computer industry on his own through a series of projects over the subsequent decades. Inspired by watching games of SpaceWar! he wrote an essay for Rolling Stone that coined the phrase “personal computer,” an essay that partly inspired a young Steve Jobs to found Apple Computer. (In his famous Stanford commencement speech, Jobs ended by quoting Brand’s sign-off from the last issue of the Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”) Brand co-founded one of the first online communities, The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link—popularly known as The WELL—in 1985. In addition to his prolific writing—including books about architecture, environmentalism, and technology—Brand’s latest project is an organization called Revive and Restore, which is investigating the possibility of using the latest genetic technology to revive extinct organisms like the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon.

From Engelbart and English’s point of view, Brand’s arrival was a stroke of tremendous luck. They were trying to push the boundaries of what screens and projectors and physical events were capable of doing. Brand had been effectively working on the same problem for the previous two years—only without the Defense Department funding.The collaboration between Brand and Engelbart would turn out to be one of the first points of contact between two distinct, but in the end strangely compatible, tribes: the narrow-tied engineers and the long-haired bohemians. “After the Trips festival, I’d gotten a reputation as being an impresario of public events. So they invited me over to their scene to help them think through and then perform that demo,” Brand recalls now. “I remember when I first went over to their offices—there was a big picture of Janis Joplin and I felt that I was safe.”

“I remember when I first went over to their offices—there was a big picture of Janis Joplin and I felt that I was safe.”
The start of the hippie counterculture

This three-day event, held at the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco in January 1966, is widely credited with being the nascence of the hippie movement. Trips Festival was a part of the “Acid Tests” series conducted by Ken Kesey and centered on the use of and advocacy for the psychedelic drug LSD. The Acid Tests were parties featuring lights, fluorescent paint, strobe lights, LSD, and other psychedelic effects. Trips Festival, with around 10,000 attendees and 6,000 people drinking punch spiked with LSD during one night, marked a moment when those underground events went fully public.

The odd tribe. Illustration: Paweł Jońca

After much deliberation, the team at the ARC hit upon a general strategy for the demo. The crucial technological breakthrough was a high-bandwidth microwave connection that Bill English arranged to connect the San Francisco conference center with the SRI offices in Menlo Park, allowing live video to be transmitted between the two locations. The team at ARC also designed customized modems to connect Engelbart’s terminal onstage to the SDS-940. Brand was given the assignment of shooting the activity back in Menlo Park, mostly focused on the mouse and a unique five-keyed input device that the ARC team had also developed. (The device had a steep learning curve for people trained on QWERTY keyboards and never took off.) To share the image from Engelbart’s screen with the San Francisco audience, they rented a cutting-edge projector from the Swedish company Eidophor, so unusual at the time that it had to be shipped out to the West Coast from New York.

Engelbart, English, Brand and the team working on the Mother of all Demos. Courtesy of SRI International

It is telling that the version of the demo that you can now watch on YouTube begins with a few introductory words almost exclusively focused on the technical innovations behind the stage show itself, and not the NLS system that Engelbart was introducing. (“Behind the scenes, Bill English coordinated the supporting crew who managed cameras, switches, mixers, special-effects controllers…”) Today, of course, we take it for granted when people gather onstage and project images from computer screens, interacting with other computers in distant cities; Steve Jobs turned that genre into a new kind of popular entertainment, most famously in his introduction of the iPhone in 2006. But the genre itself was first conjured up by Douglas Engelbart and Bill English—with a little help from Stewart Brand—back in 1968.

The Mother of All Demos, presented by Douglas Engelbart

Watching it now, it’s impossible not to chuckle through the first few minutes of the demo, as Engelbart dazzles the crowd by selecting and deleting words in a block of text, and then copying and pasting a few passages, dutifully explaining each step of what he’s doing in his soft, almost aristocratic tone. To our jaded eyes, it’s like a magician displaying his strange and wondrous ability to pick a fork off the table with his fingers—but to the 1968 audience, he might as well have been pulling rabbits out of hats. Brand says now, laughing at the memory: “Even word processing was apparently news to most people, that you could change text, move it around — it was like, wow, how’d he do that?” And remember: this was an audience composed of some of the most sophisticated minds in computer science at the time.

The vast majority of Americans had never seen a computer at that time, much less operated one. And yet here was Douglas Engelbart casually skipping from a word processor to data visualizations to outliners, presentation slides, hypertext—not to mention the mechanical breakthrough of the mouse itself.

But the longer you watch the demo, the harder it is—even watching it in 2022—to ignore the sheer magnitude of what Engelbart and his colleagues had anticipated. As the demo unfolds, the elementary word processing document turns out to also be a kind of outliner, with nested layers and the ability to zoom in and out to see the entire outline at different resolutions. Shortly after that, Engelbart starts talking about words that “jump” or “link” to other collections of words. Before long, you realize that he’s actually using the computer to visually share notes on what he’s saying, as he’s saying it, advancing the outline to accompany his speech. There’s a graph at one point documenting the rise in employees at the ARC over time. And then the presentation cuts back to the camera Brand is operating at Menlo Park, and you see the mouse controlling that onscreen pointer. The vast majority of Americans had never seen a computer at that time, much less operated one. And yet here was Douglas Engelbart casually skipping from a word processor to data visualizations to outliners, presentation slides, hypertext—not to mention the mechanical breakthrough of the mouse itself.

When Engelbart ended the presentation, he was greeted with a standing ovation that lasted for minutes. In the audience was computer scientist Andy Van Dam, who would go on to be one of the core innovators in developing hypertext in the next decade. “It was an otherworldly experience,” he later recalled, “In fact, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that it was all for real.” Years later, when the tech journalist Steven Levy sat down to write his history of the Macintosh, Insanely Great, he began the book with an account of Engelbart’s performance. He gave it a name that has since become indelibly associated with the event. He called it “the mother of all demos.” “The 1968 demo was one of the great moments in computing,” Levy says now. “Presenting to a relatively cloistered audience, Engelbart and his team presented a future that billions would later inhabit.”

“The 1968 demo was one of the great moments in computing.”
The mother of all demos. Illustration: Paweł Jońca

The true architect of the digital world

As Markoff and others have observed, the Bay Area tech scene lay at the unlikely intersection of three distinct cultural rivers: the intellectuals and scientists in the orbit of Stanford and Berkeley; military funding from DARPA; and the counterculture that had become such a dominant presence in Northern California during the period, from Esalen all the way up the coast to Marin County. Engelbart’s demo was, in a way, the first public evidence of the magnitude of the innovation that convergence was about to produce.

Many of the people in that scene were polymaths, dabblers in many things, much like Stewart Brand himself. But Engelbart was different. “Engelbart was an odd duck, top to bottom,” Brand says now. “He was obsessed and driven and single-minded—and he just lasered through a whole lot of things with that.”

But that relentless focus—chasing the vision of augmented intellect that had first danced before his eyes in the Philippines so many years ago—had its downside as well. “He was so monomaniacal he was boring,” Brand says now with a chuckle. “Once you’d heard him with his soft, purring, confident voice explaining one more time how human intellect was going to be augmented, you’d realize you’d already heard 90% of what he was going to say, and you were just going to hear it again. I think that’s one of the reasons he didn’t really prosper after the demo.”

“Engelbart was an odd duck, top to bottom. He was obsessed and driven and single-minded—and he just lasered through a whole lot of things with that.”
Douglas Engelbart and the mouse. SRI International, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Engelbart continued arguing for augmented intellect in the decades that followed, but the NLS system—and its spectacular introduction—turned out to be the high-water mark of his influence. Levy interviewed Engelbart in the early 1980s, just as the first commercial graphic interfaces were beginning to appear on the market. “He masterfully demonstrated his entire system, including a kind of piano-key device that was more efficient than typing,” he recalls. “There was a crust of bitterness underneath his impeccable cordiality, as he found it hard to grok why people didn't take the time to scale his learning curve to save themselves hundreds of hours down the road.” Engelbart accumulated a long list of well-deserved honors later in his career, but he never produced another system with the same ambition and novelty that NLS displayed. In a way, he accomplished what he’d set out to do, not so much in building a system that millions would use to augment their intellect—the NLS never became a shipped product—but by inspiring the generation that did ultimately build those systems. Many people in the audience that day—including Van Dam and future Apple chief scientist Alan Kay—would devote their careers to making interactive software a reality for everyone, galvanized by Engelbart’s vision in the same way that Engelbart himself had been galvanized by “As We May Think.”

The grainy 60s videography and the computer terminals—not to mention Engelbart himself in his narrow-tie and slicked hair—inevitably bring to mind that more famous broadcast that would captivate the world just nine months later: the Apollo 11 landing. For most Americans at the time—for most humans, perhaps—the moon landing would have initially appeared to be the more compelling clue as to what the future was going to look like: rockets, space flight, humans colonizing other worlds. Neil Armstrong planting the flag on the lunar surface must have seemed so much more obviously prophetic than a man on a stage pushing pixels around on a computer screen. And yet here we are a half-century later, and so far at least, the Apollo missions have turned out to be a red herring where the future was concerned. Not one human has so much as set foot on the moon since 1972.
But we’re all living in Douglas Engelbart’s world now.

Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of 13 books, including Where Ideas Come From. He’s the host of the PBS/BBC series Extra Life and How We Got to Now. He regularly contributes to The New York Times Magazine and has written for Wired, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. His TED Talks on the history of innovation have been viewed more than ten million times.

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