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50 Years Later, We Still Don't Grasp the Mother of All Demos


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To Engelbart, his work was never about the technology itself, but about helping people work together to solve the world's biggest problems.

Douglas Engelbart presenting the computer mouse at what came to be called the Mother of All Demos in 1968.

Credit: Apic/Getty Images

Fifty years ago today, Doug Engelbart showed 2,000 people a preview of the future.

Engelbart gave a demonstration of the "oN-Line System" at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968. The oN-Line System was the first hypertext system, preceding the web by more than 20 years. But it was so much more than that. When Engelbart typed a word, it appeared simultaneously on his screen in San Francisco and on a terminal screen at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. When Engelbart moved his mouse, the cursor moved in both locations.

The demonstration was impressive not just because Engelbart showed off Google Docs-style collaboration decades before Google was founded. It was impressive because he and his team at SRI's Augmentation Research Center had to conceive of and create nearly every piece of technology they displayed, from the window-based graphical interface to the computer mouse.

"It made the interaction with the machine almost compelling, it was intimate," says Don Nielson, a retired SRI engineer and executive who wrote a history of SRI called Heritage of Innovation. "Up til then, unless you were a programmer you didn't spend much time in front of a terminal or a teletype or whatever the medium."

You can draw a line from the technologies introduced at the "Mother of All Demos," as Wired writer Steven Levy dubbed the event in his book Insanely Great, to the internet, the web, Wikipedia, the Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, Google Docs, and a host of other technologies that dominated daily life by the time Engelbart died in 2013. To Engelbart, his work was never about the technology itself, but about helping people work together to solve the world's biggest problems.

"I don't believe that as he looked around that he thought 'Oh I had a hand in that,'" says Nielson. "He would say 'They still don't understand me.'"

 

From Wired
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