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.”
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.